Wednesday, June 30, 2010

In honor of Eclipse

I am stealing this video from my friend Liz's blog, because I believe it needs to be seen.

Al-Qaeda Calls Off Attack On Nation's Capitol To Spare Life Of 'Twilight' Author
BRILLIANT.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Some YA books I've read lately

(Whenever we spend summers abroad I end up reading classics because they're free online, or random books that other expats are passing around. So these books are not from this summer. But I realized that since I joined Goodreads, I haven't been posting as many book reviews on my blog.)

Here's a round-up of YA books I've read in the last couple of months. Apparently I end up doing this in June sometimes.

Slob, by Ellen Potter. You know a book is good when you find yourself happily identifying with the obese 12-year-old male protagonist. Yeah. Like Hattie Big Sky, this is a YA book in the tradition of those I read when I was a kid.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Monday miscellany

Here's a bunch of pictures that deserve to be blogged but do not deserve their own individual posts.

In Egypt, when your plastic lawn chair breaks, you do not buy a new one. You fix the old one. Multiple times if necessary.

For fun, here are the rules at Al-Azhar Park. Please note that you may NOT bring alcoholics inside the park.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Well, I finally got groped

There's one other Arabian cultural experience Jeremy will never get to have: being sexually harassed. This comes to mind because on Thursday, some guy - brushed? groped? touched? I'm new to this so I'm still searching for the right word - my boob. Sorry to put it so indecorously, but really, there's nothing decorous about the incident.

It happened as I was exiting the metro with both girls in tow. Somehow I've managed to spend almost two years in the Middle East unscathed as far as gropings go, but when it did happen, my two kids were with me. Of course. I had Magdalena in my arms and Miriam by the hand and we were trying to exit the metro car at the same time people were pushing to get on. We made it out, but amid the bustling crowd as I passed close to a guy entering the car, I felt and saw a distinct and intentional, uh, grabbing. Ooh, it makes me mad again just thinking about it.

The good thing is that, in response, I shoved him. YES, I did. Right there in public in front of everyone, with my two kids with me. Heck, the arm I used to do it was also holding Magdalena at the time. Mr. Harasser is the only one who knows for sure why I did it. I'll let the other passers by take a guess. I'm sure they can figure it out.

I've been steeling myself for this eventuality (because if you're a western woman and you spend enough time in the Middle East, an incident like this is just that) since we first went to Syria in 2004, so I actually don't feel as violated as I expected. I'm more just sad that my "winning streak," as it were, is now over.

You know what else mitigates my disgust? Besides this incident, considering my ride on the metro as a whole, I experienced nothing but men behaving like gentlemen. A young man gave up his seat for me immediately (that's why I was in the mixed car in the first place, for better seating chances, but in retrospect it was a bad decision), then spent the rest of the ride entertaining my kids. When we were struggling against the crowd to get off the train, a few men helped people get out of our way so we could pass. They really were on their best behavior, except for that one guy.

Still, it's the ladies-only car for me from here on out. This is one cultural experience I don't want to have ever again.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Flashback Friday: Revenge of Royal Jordanian, Part 2

As matters stood at the end of last week's Flashback Friday, Royal Jordanian had just extorted $800 from us at the ticket counter in Amman, Jordan. Though we did manage to make our flight, needless to say, we had not parted well with RJ. I figured it was good riddance since the only association I planned on having with them anytime soon was negotiations to get our $800 back.

That was before we realized we had left a little blue carry-on suitcase behind at the check-in counter. All of a sudden, I wanted very much to be in communication with those RJ extortioners at that ticket counter, as soon as possible. The cruel truth was that we were going to be stuck on a flight for 12 more hours.

I knew that the poor suitcase's fate would pretty much be decided by the time we could do anything about it. When I was able to talk to RJ, either the suitcase would have already been stolen, or it would be safe and happy in the possession of someone in authority. It was almost entirely out of our hands.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Watching USA beat Algeria, in Cairo

There are some Arabian cultural experiences that I'll just never get to have. I may get to party with the muhajibaat (veiled ladies) when they've let their hair down, literally, at a girls-only pre-wedding party, sure. But sitting in the front seat of a taxi? Chatting it up with the bowab? Not so much. Also not so much: watching the USA vs. Algeria soccer game in a ghetto street cafe with a bunch of Egyptian men.

But Jeremy gets to do that, and he did, yesterday. He was downtown for an Arabic class and when it was over, he found the nearest venue that was showing the game. It just happened to be a hole-in-the-wall cafe filled with Egyptian men. It was the kind of place that is so shabby that women don't go there, and Sprite is served, but only in those murky glass bottles.

Sprite is what Jeremy drank, and he mostly kept to himself, at least at first. But word eventually got out that he was American, and pretty soon everyone knew there was an authentic USA fan in the house. The good thing is that the Egyptians were cheering for USA, too. How can this be, you ask? Well, Egypt kind of hates Algeria right now, especially in a World Cup context, so it wasn't so much that they really wanted the US to win as they really wanted Algeria to lose.

Whatever, right? The enemy of my enemy is my friend, or something.


When Donovan scored that crucial goal, the crowd of Egyptian men jumped up from their seats and erupted into enthusiastic cheers. Jeremy was cheering, too, right along with them. There was back-slapping and clapping and arm-pumping all around. Some of the men made a point of making eye contact with Jeremy to acknowledge the resident American and include him in the festivities.

When the game was over, everyone cleared out of the cafe and everything was back to normal. Not that the US and Egypt are enemies or anything, but I can't imagine they'll be cheering for us in a soccer game again anytime soon. It was a singular experience for Jeremy and I'm kind of jealous that door is forever closed to me. At least I have my bridal parties, though I wish they could involve soccer somehow...

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

In which our stroller disappears. Ugh.

Did I mention that our stroller disappeared? We brought our umbrella stroller with us from Ithaca to use for the summer. It wasn't in the best shape and it was pretty close to not being tough enough for Egypt use, but we brought it anyway so we didn't have to buy one here. When we moved into our apartment on the fifth floor, for the first few days we hauled the stroller up and down the stairs with us and kept it inside the house.

Then we decided that was ridiculous (and really annoying). Speaking generally, the Middle East is one of the most crime-free regions on earth. Or at least large swaths of it are. Why shouldn't we just leave the stroller where we actually needed it - at the bottom of the stairs? I was 100% sure it wouldn't get stolen. Otherwise, I wouldn't have done what I did: collapsed it and tucked it out of sight behind the stairwell inside our building, up a flight of stairs and behind a closed door from the street.

The next day, the stroller was gone.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Well, DO YOU?

Jeremy noticed this pop-up ad on an Egyptian website. I don't think it means what they think it means.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Anatomy of a miscommunication

A friend is staying with us for a few days. He arrived on Friday in the middle of the night (4am) so we left a note to welcome him rather than doing so in person. Jeremy wrote it while I was in the shower and then went to bed. When I came out of the shower, here's what I read: (sorry for the scribbles. Magdalena got to it before I could take a picture):
"Hello Spencer, Next time bring your family please. Help yourself to water in the fridge, and food."
Normal enough so far, right? But then I continued reading:

"-Use bathroom w/door open."
Huh? Seriously, what? I could not figure this one out. I thought maybe it was a half-hearted reference to the weirdest Craigslist ad ever, but it didn't quite fit in. Eventually, I puzzled out my best guess at Jeremy's meaning:

"I think he means 'don't close the door all the way b/c it's really loud.'"
Ah, problem solved. Now Spencer wouldn't be freaked out by his hosts. Except Jeremy got up sometime during the night to see if Spencer had arrived (he hadn't), saw my addendum to the note, and added:

"No, I mean use the bathroom that has an open door. Don't use the bathroom behind the closed door. That's where the thing lives that guards a gateway to another dimension. Never look at it."
A clarification, sure (we technically have two bathrooms but one of them is, um, not intended to be used so we keep the door closed), but then it trails into a very clear reference to this video:


In conclusion, Spencer did arrive safely and was thankfully clear on which bathroom to use, but I'm not sure he got a lot of sleep since he was probably pondering the last part of that note. As it was, I didn't see Jeremy's additions until the morning and then it made me laugh and laugh and laugh.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Flashback Friday: Revenge of Royal Jordanian

Steven, Miriam and I in Jordan in 2007, at Kerak Castle, maybe?
I know some of you know this story already, but for those who haven't heard it - believe me, it is an amazing saga of rage, loss, trickery, and redemption. It transcends language barriers and even the Atlantic Ocean. It begins in Amman, Jordan.

Our little family of three, plus my little brother Steven, who had been visiting us, headed to Queen Alia International Airport in Amman on a bright August morning in 2007 to head back to the US after a summer in Jordan taking care of BYU students. We arrived with plenty of time to catch our flight - about 2.5 hours early, in fact.

Well, two of those hours later, we were just barely getting our turn at the check-in counter. Yes, thanks to a group of VIP travelers who cut in front of us, and a Jordanian lady who spent over an hour arguing with the check-in agent about whether or not she needed a visa to enter the US (she did, and she didn't have one), we had a scant 30 minutes to check in for our flight, get through immigration, get through security, get to our gate, and get on the plane. With our numerous carry-on bags (and almost-2-year-old Miriam) in tow.

When it was finally our turn to check in, the Royal Jordanian agent mentioned nonchalantly that we'd need to pay some additional money at - get this - a totally separate location in the airport with a totally separate line. We ran over to the other counter, waited in line, asked about this mystery payment, and found out that (I still can't even believe these words as I type them) since the price of our tickets had changed since we purchased them, we had to pay the difference, about 200 USD each. Including Miriam. Who didn't even have a ticket since she wasn't two years old yet.

Oh, and they wanted 200 dollars from my brother, too, even though his ticket was bought totally separate from ours for a totally separate price.

An open letter to Egyptians trying to take pictures of my kids

(I considered a few ways of writing this post and decided on a letter format. It ended up sounding grumpy no matter what I did. I'm not really grumpy about it, I'm just tired of it. I appreciate a society that values children. It's one of my favorite things about Arabia. I just wish that "appreciation" didn't go into hyperactive mode around little blonde kids and manifest itself primarily in the form of taking pictures of them, that's all.)

Magdalena is about to get intercepted (al-Azhar Park).
Dear Egyptians trying to take pictures of my kids:

There is a right way to take a picture of my kid, and a wrong way. Actually, there are lots of wrong ways.

Asking me ahead of time if you can take a picture of my kid is a step in the right direction. But if I say yes, I don't mean that you can completely arrest the flow of her play in order to get a good shot. Don't ask her to get off the swing. Don't grab her by the arm while she's climbing up the ladder to the slide. Don't snap your fingers in her face. Don't physically move her face so that it's facing your camera. Don't force her to sit down on the slide so you can see her better. Don't wait to take her picture until she's giving you a perfect smile. My kids don't even smile for the pictures I take of them. When they're being harassed by a perfect stranger, the chances of a smile are even slimmer.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The joys of hand-me-down toys

We received a huge load of hand-me-down toys yesterday from our friends the Heisses, who are moving back to America later this week. Jackpot! Hand-me-down toys are nothing new to us (ha ha), most notably exemplified by that time we inherited two dozen My Little Ponies. Oh glorious day.

This time is a little different, though. Many (if not most) of the toys the Heisses gave us were originally hand-me-downs to them, given to them by other families departing Cairo. Heck, some of them might even have been third- or fourth-generation hand-me-downs, the way things go around here.

So you can imagine what an interesting mix of toys it was. Think about it: although we received them in one batch, each one of these toys (or sets of toys) was acquired by a different family with different values and ideas and genders and ages of kids. Maybe some were free. Maybe some were specially saved for. Whatever they were, when the time came to go back to America or on to another overseas location, these toys did not make the cut. The only thing that the families who contributed to this pile of toys had in common for sure was that they lived at one time in Cairo, which you can understand does not make a very cohesive group.

Let's take a look!

(Before we do, let me state clearly that we were so grateful to receive all these toys since we didn't bring any with us. I am not making fun of the people who originally purchased these toys. I just think that considered as a group, they make for an interesting mix.)

First up: the belle of the ball, the one and only My Little Pony castle. It is pictured here without its various appurtenances since Miriam likes to re-assemble it before each play period. This is a true gem. Whoever handed this down to whoever, etc., THANK YOU.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Clotheslines of Egypt

All that talk of laundry yesterday and I didn't post a certain picture. On our train ride from Cairo to Alexandria last week, I started taking pictures out the window of some of the clotheslines we passed.

I like clotheslines. I like making guesses about people's families based on what clothes are drying in the breeze. You can tell how many kids a person has, whether those kids are young or old, boys or girls. You can even tell if the mom in the family is veiled or not. Long, densely packed clotheslines always get a sigh of sympathy from me. The ones with heavy robes or jeans or blankets hanging on them do, too. Laundry is hard work (and you can bet I'm not the only one in Cairo without a washing machine).

In Syria I would look at clotheslines to get tips on how to hang things so they dried faster. For example, I used to hang jeans in half over the clothesline. Then I looked around and noticed all the Syrian ladies were hanging their washed jeans pinned up at the cuffs and hanging upside down. Same with socks (pinned at the toes). I also learned from strangers' clotheslines the trick where you double up the clothes just at the edges so you can use fewer clothespins.

Here in Cairo, as far as my own personal laundry goes (when I'm not paying someone to do it, ha ha), I am using an indoor drying rack that we bought (grudgingly). The apartment has an outdoor laundry line but it faces a huge, dusty field. I'm sure you can guess what happens to damp, clean clothes when they hang in the breeze over a huge, dusty field. Yeah.

Anyway. Please enjoy this collage of the clotheslines of Egypt (click to enlarge).

Monday, June 14, 2010

Ironed pajamas in a pay-someone-to-do-it country

I wrote once about how Syria is very much a "do-it-yourself" country. If that's an accurate description of Syria, then Egypt is the "pay-someone-to-do-it" country. Since living here, I've paid people to drive me around town (taxis, of course), deliver food to my door, deliver groceries to my door, and wash my clothes, and then deliver them to my door.

The food and grocery delivery really are something. There's this magical thing called Otlob.com here where you go online, click through dozens and dozens of restaurants, make your selections, and place your order. It shows up at your door within 45 minutes. MAGIC, I tell you. It makes so much sense that I can't believe America hasn't jumped on board yet. Why should delivery be limited only to pizza? Here in Cairo, there are motorcycles with logo-ed cargo boxes strapped on the back zipping in and out of traffic all day.

Speaking of food coming to my door, you can also get groceries delivered (for free). Sometimes we go to the actual store and pick out our purchases and then have it delivered (up five flights of stairs, mwahahahahahaha). Other times, we just call them and ask them to bring a few things up. Again, MAGIC.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Yesterday in Cairo

This little guy was hitching a ride on some floating detritus.

A boat on the Nile, with a guy hanging off the front end.

Another boat on the Nile.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Flashback Friday: In which I am accused of attempted murder

Here's another Refried Flashback Friday for you. It was originally titled, "Would you like secondhand smoke with your gastrointestinal distress?" You'll notice that I changed the title. That's because when I started writing this flashback, I thought the cigarette smoke + vomit was the best part. It was only as I finished writing it that I remembered the part where I was accused of trying to kill my husband. Which I think we can all agree is the better story. The new title better reflects that reality. Originally published September 19, 2008.

We've reminisced about camping for the last three installments of Flashback Friday. Let's move on to another theme: stories from Russia.


My Russian driver's license. Somehow the photographer managed to make me look like a Young Pioneer of the Soviet Union.

Moscow, Russia, early 2002: President Vladimir Putin was busy impressing the world with his skills in judo, German, and non-smoking. September 11th having only recently occurred, the Russians were temporarily feeling love and sympathy for their American friends (they would get back to disliking and mistrusting us by the end of the year). The temperature outside was 20 degrees below zero, making the snow drifts so dry that to walk through them was like plowing through sand. The boogers in our noses froze immediately upon stepping out of doors. While walking around in the city, we not only had to keep a clear eye for icy patches on the "sidewalks," but also be aware of any large icicles falling down from the roof overhangs of nearby buildings. A few people every year are killed by large chunks of ice falling on them. Such is the treachery of a Russian winter.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Walk of Shame

Of course Cairo is one of those insane cities with tons of traffic and no sidewalks and irregular road patterns. Still, I was all set to walk to playgroup this morning with the girls. I looked at a map ahead of time, planned out our route, and set out in semi-confidence.

We hit a snag - well, quite a few snags, actually - but it wasn't anything that couldn't be straightened out with a friendly query to a passerby to set us in the right direction. At one crucial juncture, after I'd already made a lot of wrong turns and was running out of patience, we came upon a posse of loitering men. I asked them which way to go on Road 12 in order to reach my destination, which house number I gave them. They asked a few follow-up questions, consulted amongst themselves, and then called over a few neighboring loiterers to come join the conference. Seriously, guys were walking over from down the street to try to figure out which way we should go (that's why I never feel bad for getting lost here - even the natives aren't really sure where stuff is). Finally they reached a consensus and sent us on our way. I was really grateful to them for taking time from their loitering to help me, and thanks and you're welcomes were amply exchanged.

Except we went the way they said, and it was the wrong way. Now I had to turn around and walk right back past them with no way to hide the fact that they had been wrong and I was suffering for it. AWKWARD. I have dubbed it the Walk of Shame.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Summer living

I mentioned before that we've spent every summer since 2006 Somewhere Else. It may sound glamorous and adventurous to spend our summers away from home, and in some ways, it is. But there are plenty of aspects of summer temp living that get tiresome after a while.

The one I struggle with the most is what to pack, what to buy when we get there, and what to do without. You can only pack so much in a suitcase, so when we get to our destination (and the apartment whose furnishings I usually have no information about before we arrive), it's time to take stock. What did I bring that I shouldn't have? What did I leave behind that would have been really nice to have right about now? What should we buy, even though we will only use it for a few months? What should we just do without for those few months?

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Twilight books have been translated into Arabic

Of COURSE they have.

FYI, you can read a new Eclipse novella - The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner - for free online, here.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Alexandria-Cairo train crisis

This post will be a lot less confusing if I explain that we're actually going to be living in Cairo, not Alexandria, this summer. Surprise in the Ball applies to Egypt, too, I guess. There are definite advantages to being in Cairo, not the least of which is that there is a church congregation here that we can worship with. Miriam is in love with the children's class there already.

But I am sad to see the precious Summer of Alexandria slip from my grasp. Look, Egypt is not my favorite place, and when we were making plans for this summer, I consoled myself many a time with the fact that "at least we wouldn't be in Cairo" (which was another one of our options). Famous last words, right? Goodbye, temperate climate and Mediterranean Sea. Hello, dust so thick you can't see through it and sheer, 11-million strong HUMANITY.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Syria sundries

I have a bunch of photos/stories from our trip to Syria I want to share but none of them deserve their own blog post. So here you go. And you're welcome!

Misspelled Mitsubishi van. See also. This one is more egregious, though.

So. Some dude noticed there were pigeons flying around by the old Roman temple in the Old City, and also noticed that kids liked to feed said pigeons. So he roped off an area of (what I assume is) public space and started selling bags of birdseed for 10 lira. BRILLIANT.

Dear American-style donut store: I could have used you back in, oh I don't know, 2005 when I was pregnant with Miriam and I would have been your best customer due to cravings. Why do you exist now??

Friday, June 04, 2010

Flashback Friday: Joseph Smith in Syria

There are some weird things about being Mormon in the Middle East. I wrote at length about the experience here.

In addition to all that, you've got the little things that you don't necessarily think about ahead of time, like how your garments are going to be drying on a line, flapping in the breeze four stories up for all to see, just like everybody else's laundry.

There's the joy of trying to explain to a veiled woman that hey, we have dress standards, too! And then back-tracking when you realize that it's not really the same since Mormon women can wear regular swimsuits and short sleeves and even shorts. (But at least the same principle is there.) (But STILL.)

If a Mormon simply must find something in common with the Muslims in the Middle East, there's always the great crowd-pleaser: polygamy. Though I confess that the reactions I get from Muslims upon hearing that Mormons once practiced polygamy is often quite rational and genuinely interested, instead of completely scandalized. Still, really mixed feelings on this one. It's great to find mutual understanding but did it really have to be about polygamy?

The single weirdest moment I experienced as a Mormon in the Middle East was fortunately very amusing. And I'm not talking about the time an American we know was in an antique shop in the Damascus Old City and found a very old, tiny silver spoon engraved with an image of the Salt Lake Temple. Though this did happen to us in the Old City.

Jeremy and I were walking down an alleyway en route to somewhere or other, passing the shopkeepers who were sitting outside of their shops and enjoying tea and conversation at little tables. Suddenly, right after we passed, one of the shopkeepers called out at us in a loud voice, "JOSEPH SMITH!!!!"

I'm sure his intent was to get our attention, and boy, did it work. We both turned around, completely puzzled as to a number of things. How did this Syrian guy know we were Mormon? How did he know enough about Mormons to bring up Joseph Smith? Seriously, what the heck?

Of course we talked with him to figure out what was going on. It turns out that Jeremy was wearing a BYU shirt at the time, and this guy had once been friends with a BYU student studying in Damascus. They had talked about Mormons enough for him to be familiar with basic tenets of our faith, including Joseph Smith. And when he saw us walking by with a BYU shirt, he just couldn't resist.

Nothing like that has ever happened since. Maybe getting called out as a Mormon in the Old City of Damascus is the kind of thing that only happens once. I can see how that would be the case.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Aleppo-Cairo airplane mysteries

Yesterday, we flew from Aleppo, Syria, back to Cairo. The whole experience of going through security, checking in, passport control, going through security (again), boarding the flight, and the flight itself provided many mysteries. More mysteries than you might expect on an EgyptAir flight from Aleppo to Cairo. I present them here for your amusement/mental exercise.

So many passengers on the flight both checked and carried on to the plane massive amounts of bedding. You know those large, plastic, zippered carrying cases that bedding sometimes is packaged in when you buy it? It seemed like everyone besides us had one of those. And it wasn't like they were using the handy case for other personal goods. As far as we could tell, they were all full of actual bedding. What is going on here?

Six tips for traveling abroad with children

1. Write down all the people, places, and sites you absolutely MUST see in the time you have. Now cross out two-thirds of them at random. The remaining list is what you’ll actually get around to. EVERYTHING TAKES LONGER WITH KIDS.

2. For fun, as you travel, make a list of everything you considered taking with you on the trip but didn’t, that you then found yourself needing desperately. On this trip, my list included diaper rash cream, a thermometer, and hoodies for the girls.

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