Sunday, October 31, 2010

My Patron Saint of Arabic Studies

I tried to get into an Arabic class, but I have a very limited window when I'm available due to kids' schedules and babysitter availability. The one class that would have worked for me was full, so I reluctantly gave up the idea of studying Arabic this year.

Then, this morning, I ran into one of the very senior spouses at the Embassy. We chatted for a bit, and when she asked why I wasn't enrolled in Arabic, I told her.

It turns out she was headed toward the classroom herself, so she brought me with her and talked the teacher into admitting me into an already-full class. The teacher gave me a stack of vocabulary lists to memorize by Tuesday so I can try to catch up. And just like that - I'm going to start classes on Tuesday. Assuming, of course, that I can work on those study sheets and not make a fool of myself.

Like I said, this woman is very, very senior in the hierarchy of the Embassy. Sometimes you hear scary stories about the higher-ups. And sometimes, they're true. But so often, I've found the spouses of the senior-most diplomats to be nice, nice people, willing to share what they've learned over the years and not at all snooty about their husbands' (usually the husbands') jobs.

The DCM's wife at our first post ended up being one of my favorite people in the whole of the Foreign Service. Her husband was, at the time, the #2 person at one of the biggest Embassies worldwide - which means she was equally busy and important in her own role as his spouse. But she and he couldn't have been nicer, more down-to-earth people. Remind me to tell you some stories about the ways they helped us through that post some time. We were lucky enough to serve with them at another post, where he was the Ambassador - and still just as nice as can be. We narrowly missed serving with them at a third post, and I've always regretted that. If you knew this couple, and knew the kind of work they did every day of their professional careers, you'd feel certain that our day-to-day foreign policy operations are in the hands of the right people.

We had another fabulous Ambassadorial couple at another post. I got sick within days of arriving at post and had to be medevaced. When I returned to post, she was one of the first people who called me and offered to take me shopping or bring me a dinner. Not long afterwards, our dogs were in a training class together when my dog decided to lift his leg and pee right on her shoe! To say I was mortified would be an understatement. But she was so nice about it - funny even - that I felt better. (I never let my dog near her again, though.)

So you see? You hear stories about these snotty, privileged ladies who spend their life in the diplomatic corps, and more often than not, they simply aren't true.

The lady who helped me today actually ended up eating into her own class time to get me situated, but she never mentioned it. I only learned that it was her class time when the teacher told me.

So there you have it. With some help from high places, I now have the chance to study some Arabic. Now: to study. I don't want to blow this chance.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Allah's Blessing

There are loads of guards on the streets of west Amman. Some people have actual policemen, dressed in camoflauge and carrying big guns, standing in front of their buildings. Others hire private security guards to keep watch on their houses.

One house on our street has a rotating cast of security guards whom we pass each morning as we walk to school. A couple of the the men wave and say hi to Kyra and Ainsley as they skip past.

Today, Kyra was running ahead, so she reached the guard booth ahead of us. When we caught up, she was standing in the guard booth, chattering with the guard. He asked me "does she understand English or French?" English, I told him.

"Then," he said in English, placing his hand on her head like a benediction, "I will pray to Allah for her good health." He kissed her on top of the head and continued, "I will ask Allah to make her a doctor. Or maybe an engineer."

Kyra rewarded his prayer with one of her glowing smiles and we continued on our way. Now, of course, we have a new spring in our step, knowing as we do that a stranger has sent his prayers to Allah on our behalf.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Game Day

With my husband gone, soccer duty fell to me for the first time. I (wisely) decided to hire a babysitter for the girls so I'd only have to manage two kids at once.

Of course, the baby sitter was late. And I had to go pick up the boys from a sleepover, on the other side of the Embassy, so I could take them to their games.

I made my way to the sleepover house, confident I could find it because I'd just dropped them off there the night before.

What I didn't count on was the return trip. There was a road race this morning, apparently, and so the other side of the road was shut down. I drove, and drove, and drove some more, looking for a way to turn around. I crossed the bridge that leads into East Amman, which I've crossed exactly once before, and I had two thoughts simultaneously. The first: Holy hell, I am completely and totally lost and we will never make it to soccer and I will probably end up stranded and lost in some east ammani alley and I won't be able to call my husband because he's not even in the country and I wonder if I will get robbed and maybe I should call someone now for directions? (Yes. I am aware that that is one very long thought. I think big, people.) My second thought, because I am a strange individual, was simply: well, this will make a good blog entry!

Eventually we hit a numbered traffic circle and I was able to make it back toward the airport road, to the field o' dirt that is our soccer field. I didn't get robbed, or lost, or stuck in a ditch. It was actually quite anti-climactic. But I had you worried there for a minute, didn't I, mom?

So. Soccer. I had to run back and forth between two fields simultaneously, so I didn't get a really good sense of either game. Shay, though. Poor Shay is the only American on his team, and he isn't really happy because he doesn't understand what's going on. It doesn't help that he hasn't been to a single practice, because practices are on Saturday night at the same time as church. So he hasn't exactly bonded with his teammates. I thought he was exaggerating the whole "everyone speaks Arabic" thing until I watched the half time pep talk. Yep. All in Arabic. Here's Shay (number 17), kind of standing off to the side, trying to disappear into a wall or something, while the coach shouted and gesticulated and seemed to be saying something very important.

So he mostly just ran around on the fringes of the game, not really getting into it.

At one point, I did catch him fighting for the ball. He got it, only to have his teammates immediately start screaming, in English this time, "Pass! Pass!" He passed, and that's the first, last and only time I saw him touch the ball.

I don't think he'll be signing up next season.

Then there's Aidan. Aidan has 2 or 3 other Americans on his team, and he goes to practices because they're during the week, at a close-by field. So he's pretty happy. He has a terrific coach, who seems to instruct primarily in Arabic, but also manages to mix enough English in so that the American kids know what's expected of them.

Ain't he cute?

Remember when I mentioned that the field is dirt? Here you can see clouds of the stuff flying up under their feet. It was hard to take pictures because the whole field was obscured by dust. Aidan's #14 out there in the middle.

Here's the coach. I believe he's a college student and former basketball player who coaches part-time because he loves sports.

And here's the high-five line after the game. Some things never change.

After the game, we stopped at the snack bar. You have to elbow your way to the front, where you can order these flatbread thingies that are cooked on a giant skillet, reminiscent of a Mongolian barbeque cooker. One man stood in the back, rolling the dough and putting it on the hot griddle.

Once it's cooked, the guy in front puts whatever you want on it. I saw cheese, turkey, hot dogs, olives, pickles, tomatoes... Or you can do what my boys did, and just order one stuffed with Nutella. (Just as I snapped the photo, the guy in back grabbed something from under the counter - that's why there's a head floating there in the picture.)

I got cheese and olive. There he is making it. It cost 1.25 JD - right around $2.

They wrapped it up in paper and handed it over, smoking hot.

It was delicious.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Talented Salmon

In an effort to give you all something interesting to read, I decided to get my hair cut this morning.

See, there's this lady I met, and she showed up at soccer practice with gorgeous hair. When you move a lot, the only way to get a good haircut is to find someone with beautiful hair and demand that they give you the name of their hairdresser. So I asked, and she told me: Talented Salmon.


Well, it turns out his name is Samman, not Salmon. But don't you like it better the way I wrote it first?

She told me how to get there, and I tried, I really did. But alas - I got all tangled up in the streets of Sweifiyeh and gave up. So yesterday, when I saw gorgeous hair lady, I asked again. (Some say I'm persistent. Some say I'm annoying. Again, I go with the first description.)

She pulled out her cell, called up Mr. Fish, and the next thing I knew, I had an appointment for 10 am today.

This time I found him, but I had to call her from the road so she could talk me in - pesky left turns trick me every time.

Turns out Talented Salmon is, indeed, talented. He was like Edward Scissorhands on the clippers, and he took a good two inches off, more in places. I was getting nervous, but then he leaned in and looked closely at my hair. He asked, "this hair - it is your natural color under highlights, yes?" I nodded affirmatively. "Yes," he said. "It is beautiful, this hair. A beautiful color."

So, of course, I'm now a client for the next three years, right? No matter what happens to this beautiful hair of mine, I'm sold on Salmon.

It's a great cut I have now. It took all of 10 minutes. But then - then he pulled out the hair dryer. That took a long, long time, with clips, and rollers, and brushes galore.

Now? Now I look like a 70s porn star. I look like the Fourth Angel. I look kind of floozy-ish. I'd post a picture, but, well, let's just wait for the curl to die down a bit, shall we?

Instead, Here's a picture of the hair salon. Note that it's pink: those of you who are participating in this week's FS RoundUp will know what that means. And yes, I did have to go up those creepy stairs to get to his salon.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

I Got Nuthin'.

Sometimes, when you're overseas, you think to yourself, I can't believe this is my life! Because you're busy doing crazy things, in crazy places, sometimes with crazy people (thinking of you, Jen and Mary - driving just isn't the same without you).

Other times, you think to yourself, well, this isn't any different from life back in the States, except that I'm far from family and Costco rotisserie chickens.

I'm in a routine right now that simply isn't bloggable. I've been working a lot, doing some business writing projects (hey - they're paying me, and last I checked, you're not, so they get first dibs on my writing muscles). I've been experimenting with bread baking, trying out different types of loaves. I've been packing lunches, and grocery shopping, and taking kids to soccer practice, and putting laundry away, and reading to kids, and generally trying to balance life with four kids. I missed Kyra's Open House at school because I wrote it on the wrong day in the calendar. How pathetic is that?

My husband has been working the CRAZY hours - every post worse than the last, I think. I guess that's what you get when you go to a Danger Pay post. And he gets on a plane shortly for a trip to the States, so I'll be doing the single mother thing for awhile.

But all is well here - I'm still alive, if boringly busy at times.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Goodbye, Salukis

This post is long overdue, but there are some things I find too hard to write down.

Those dogs. Those salukis that we brought home. They really grew on me fast.

We named them Guinness and Bolt, and other than the fact that no one had ever taught them to poop outside, they were pretty much perfect, if a bit jumpy. They didn't bark. They were very affectionate. They followed us everywhere, and when I worked, one or the other always had his head on my lap.

The kids loved them. Ainsley was forever hugging them fiercely around the neck and saying "I lub him, mama!" Shay took them for walks with his dad, with Kyra and Aidan joining in occasionally.

Despite their somewhat skittish nature - they were rescued from an abusive environment - they were quickly making themselves part of the family.

Until Ainsley snuck up on Guinness while he was snoozing. She must have frightened him, but before he ran away to hide, he bit her, right on the face.

Ainsley is okay: his teeth cut her nose, narrowly missing her eye, and left a bruise on her forehead. After she recovered from her fright, she actually started trying to follow him around, wanting to hug him again. But poor Guinness knew he was busted, and he cowered in the corner, away from her and me. He wouldn't come near us for an entire day - and of course Ainsley wouldn't leave him alone.

The dogs had to go.

I felt awful. Awful. After all, if I'd been paying attention, I never would have permitted Ainsley to sneak up on a sleeping animal. But the damage was done, and I can't keep a dog in the house that has bitten a child, no matter the reason.

Because the dogs were littermates and had spent their whole lives together, we decided to send them back to the kennel together. They came as a team; they left as a team.

The shelter sent a driver the very next afternoon - the afternoon of the dust storm, a couple of weeks ago - to pick up the dogs. It was dusty and windy and dark when the driver and handler arrived. The dogs were thrilled to see them again - until the handler tried to load them in the van. They knew they were leaving us, and they clearly did not want to go. Bolt went first, and he stood in the back of the van trembling so hard that his fur was flying off him. Guinness leapt out of the van and tried to run away, but when I called him, he reluctantly came back, and they forced him back into the van.

They got the van door shut and drove away. Kyra waved cheerfully from her perch on her bicycle and shouted "bye bye! bye bye!" to the dogs until the van was out of sight. Then she turned and said, "awww, I wish we still had those dogs," got off her bike and sadly went inside.

Shay took it particularly hard. That's three dogs he's said goodbye to in as many months, and he was crushed.

We all were. But it was the safest thing to do. The shelter is going to try to find a family without kids to re-adopt Guinness and Bolt.

A few weeks have gone by since we sent the dogs back, but the house still seems empty without them.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Family Wonder #2

You've all heard of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. The first one our family had the chance to visit was the Great Wall of China. And now we've visited our second wonder: the ancient rock city of Petra.

Our guidebook starts its section on Petra with the sentence "Petra is incredible." Not very descriptive, perhaps, but definitely accurate.

We went with a group from the Embassy, and our guides were a woman who works with the Petra National Trust and an archeologist who works at the site. The woman pointed out many projects that have been funded or otherwise supported by the Embassy (and you, the U.S. taxpayer) - I suppose that's why we rated such knowledgeable guides. They spent about 4 hours walking us through the site, giving us the basic history and pointing out things I never would have noticed or understood on my own. It was, as the guidebook stated, incredible.

We didn't take the girls, because we weren't sure they could handle it. It was a 2 1/2 hour drive there, and we had to leave by 7 a.m. so we could return before dark. (Apparently you don't want to be on the King's Highway after dark, because sleepy truckers will just park in the middle of the Highway to nap, and bedouins bed down their livestock right in the roadway after the sun sets.) The hike itself might have been too much for them - we probably walked a good 5 miles across the site, and we didn't even see the whole thing. For example, we didn't think we'd make it up to the Monastery and back in time to meet the bus - and as it turns out, folks who did it said the donkey ride up was pretty treacherous, so just as well we didn't try with the boys.

What we saw, though, was just amazing, and I'm so glad we had the chance to go.

The archeologist pointed out this carving, which I would've walked right by without noticing. See the feet? That was a man, leading a camel caravan into the city. Behind him you can see some camel feet, and even, if you look closely, the camel bellies (aside: our archeologist also noted that about 60% of the city is estimated to be undiscovered thus far).

That's Bart and Shay, up at the top of those stairs.

The much-photographed entrance to the Treasury.

The Treasury itself.

We climbed way up there...

See? There we are at the top. Look behind us - we used to be way down there...

We bought some souvenirs from this bedouin, who told us, in excellent English, that he grew up in one of these caves. The bedouins weren't forced to move out until the 1980s.

There were horses, and donkeys, and camels, any of which you could ride if you were willing to pay the Bedouins who own them.

I'm not sure why, but quite a few of the young Bedouin guys seemed to be taking sartorial tips from Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Carribean.

Aidan rode Bob Marley the horse up the last incline. He was reluctant to do it, but ulitmately said it was the best part of the day.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Walking Home

I was waiting to cross the big road that leads to my house, when what should I see crossing the other way?

(Note to my Beijing friends: yes, the sky really is that blue. Every single day.)

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

This One's For You, Connie

This week's Foreign Service RoundUp, compiled by Connie, has a theme: Halloween.

I've been kind of too busy to think about Halloween.

In addition to my manic baking (see previous post), I've picked up a few freelance jobs and am just a wee bit over my head trying to figure out health care reform and holistic healing and website design and some other random things. Oh, and I have four kids to keep alive. One of whom wants to be a mermaid for Halloween.

Which brings me back to the title of this post. Connie asked for Halloween, so here it is: the front of Ainsley's mermaid costume. I still have to do the back, but I'm having trouble with that - she keeps taking it and carrying it around the house. I guess she likes it.

Kyra likes it, too. Which is unfortunate, because she was all set to be Belle again this year, until she saw the mermaid tail. Now she wants one. I predict I'm about to get busier...

Please tell me this looks mermaidy to you. Please?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Home Ec 101

I went on a sort of a cooking spree today.

I started out by making pasta sauce, which I usually make with eggplant. But I had too much eggplant, so I decided to slice it thin, bake it and stuff it with lasagna filling. But I had too much filling, so I had to make a little tiny 2-person lasagna with the leftovers. When am I even gonna serve that to my family of six?

Then I started on the baking. The Marines are having a fundraising bake sale for this year's Marine Ball. So I made a big batch of chocolate chip cookies. Then I thought I'd try my hand at mini chocolate croissants. Hey, it's for a good cause, and I can always eat the ones that aren't pretty enough to sell, right?

Once I'd finished cooking and cleaning up my mess, I turned to amazon to place a last-minute Halloween costume order. I found Aidan's costume. I found Shay's costume. Kyra wants to wear hers from last year, so that's done.

That leaves Ainsley. Ainsley desperately wants to be a "baby mermaid" for Halloween. But the costumes online all looked kind of tacky, or too grown up. So I started cutting up old dresses that don't fit her anymore. I got out the ole sewing machine, the one that my parents bought me, gawd knows why, about 4 years ago. And I'm trying to figure out how to make my own darn mermaid tail. Me, who has no talent whatsoever in the sewing department.

What is wrong with me? Seriously, why couldn't I just convince Ainsley to wear one of her ready-made princess dresses instead?

I'm going to go eat a couple of mini croissants and contemplate this issue before I go to bed. Anyone out there need a lasagna for two?

Remembering 1998 Embassy Bombing Victims

Via Diplopundit, here's a link to a short, sad article on a few of the victims of the 1998 Embassy bombings in Africa. These people gave their lives and the lives of their family members, all in service of our country. Eleven Americans died and many more were injured. Over 200 Tanzanians and Kenyans were also killed in the blast - many of them were also working to advance our diplomatic goals in their countries.

One of the alleged conspirators goes on trial this week.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Site of the Baptism of Jesus Christ

The guidebook clearly states that this site is best visited in the winter, or early in the morning, because of the extreme heat. But we Gormans scoff at the guidebooks! We do as we please! We go to one of the lowest, hottest places on earth at 2 o'clock in the afternoon on a summery day. We're smart like that.

The guidebook was correct. It was hot down there at 350 meters below sea level. 105 degrees worth of hot.

Also, there's the little matter of the flies.

We pulled up to the entrance gate and rolled down our window to ask directions. While the gentleman was telling us where to go, in careful Arabic of which we understood not a word, about 20 flies flew right in the open window and proceeded to get comfy in our air conditioned car.

"How 'bout those flies?" said Bart, as we continued down the road, shooing them away. He parked and went to buy tickets. I opened the doors so we wouldn't bake in the car and within seconds about 400 flies descended. They were everywhere, crawling on us, on the seats, on the windows. The kids were screaming. I was shooing. The flies were calling their friends to come join the party.

Those flies stayed with us throughout our day. And I think I now understand why our faith chose baptism by immersion in water. The only way to get away from the flies, and the heat, would be to jump in the river. Makes perfect sense now.

We walked the site with a guide and a few other tourists. The guide reminded us to stick together and not leave the path because "this is a military zone."

So, to recap: we took our kids to one of the lowest, hottest places on earth. In a military zone. With monster flies.

But we had to. I mean, this place is crawling with Biblical history. Jesus himself walked this ground, along with John the Baptist, obviously. We wanted our kids to see this for themselves - talk about a religious experience!

When we got to the actual baptism site, Aidan wanted to know what "baptism" means. I tried to explain about the sacraments of our church, the first of which is baptism. Aidan didn't remember watching his sisters getting baptized. I mentioned the second sacrament, First Communion, and asked if he remembered his brother's First Communion ceremony, about 3 years ago. Yes, he said, he remembered that: that's when Shay got the "Jesus trophy."

Ummm, excuse me?

"You know, mom," he explained. "The necklace with the guy on the cross. The Jesus Trophy."

Upon hearing that, I looked down at the nearby baptism site and said a silent apology to Jesus himself. We have GOT to get that kid into religious education classes somehow. I mean, I'm not the most catholic of Catholics, but even I know that ain't right.

Despite the heat, and the flies, and the fences, it was still an amazing place. I can't quite believe we got to see such an important place, with so much archeological, historical and religious significance, just 45 minutes down the road from our house.

Awww, so cute! But really, I was explaining to her that lugging her around in 105 degree heat was more unpleasant than she could possibly know.

The River Jordan, of Biblical times. Yes, it really is greenish in color. And it's not much of a river either - it's more of a stream these days.

Did I mention yet that it was 105 degrees? Here's Aidan, either contemplating his faith or worrying that he is going to spontaneously combust.

Yes, that is a long-sleeved shirt Ainsley is wearing. Oh, it's still 105 degrees. But this is what happens when you let your daughter dress herself. Fashion over comfort: it starts early.

And here it is, the probable site of the baptism of Jesus Christ. In case you're wondering, yes, the river flowed this way all those years ago.

The remains of one of three churches originally on the site.

All that is left of the original mosaic floor.

Lots of churches, everywhere you look...

Bart putting water from the new baptism site on the kids...

See that flag flying in the background? That's the Israeli flag - the West Bank is just on the other side of the river.

I imagine there must be water down there sometimes.

Heading home at last...

Please. Write your own stuff.