Thursday, June 2, 2011

I hope you had the time of your life...

Well it's time. Mike took me aside and in the too-gentle voice one would use with an unbalanced and fragile or potentially dangerous individual told me that it's time.

Time to end the blog.

I knew he was right, of course, but that didn't keep me from bawling like a wounded donkey, which dwindled down into largely incoherent whimpers.

Time passed, and eventually I extracted myself from the floor where I'd been rocking back and forth and after a few more weeks, so there was no misunderstanding that it was my idea, I sat down and began work on the very last blog entry.

And even then it took me forever.

Saying good-bye is hard. We had a lot of them to say when we left Dubai. And I need to say good-bye, and thank you to you as well. Thank you for going on this journey with us. It's been quite the trip. We've braved an awful lot together, and I've enjoyed sharing it all; from camel burgers to washing elephants to exotic potties, the crazy running, the tears, the laughter, and the general inanity of our family fumbling though 10 countries the best we could.

Here is the last story. It is small, but it's meaningful to me.

There are many, many traffic circles in Dubai, and innumerable construction sites. Reportedly, a million Indian men worked those sites while we were in Dubai, not to mention the many other nationalities also employed. These fellows made an average of a dollar an hour, and there was one job that Mike and I always wondered about: the waver of the orange flag.

The flag waver sits or stands along construction entrances, limply moving his flag back and forth as that indescribable heat radiates from both the sun and up from the sand and pavement. The air conditioned cars speed past, neither noticing nor caring about the request to go a bit more slowly, a bit more cautiously. The flag waver has no company to make the time pass a bit more quickly during his 10 or 12 hour shifts, 6 days a week.

This seems a soul-killing sort of enterprise to undertake.

Now, the comparably lucky flag-wavers have a bit of shade from an umbrella, quickly faded by the desert sun, or even a wooden shack of sorts. It was one of these shacks that made me happy literally every time we drove past it.

You see, it was decorated. The only one we ever saw that was. And was it ever.

Festoons of cheap silk flowers, mostly red, and ribbons, bits that shined and bobbed from the motion of cars zooming past, and on holidays, spray painted greetings in uncertain English but certain pizazz on the wall of the shack where drivers could see them.

No one could argue that this fellow has a lousy job. Away from his family, his friends, and yet he made made the best of it, turning his little corner of the earth into something lovely. The embodiment of the sweetness that turns lemons into lemonade.

So, Mike said he thought I was crazy and a silly softie, but I drove out there one last time anyway, determined to thank my unknown friend.

When I pulled off the main road onto the sand he came confusedly out of the shack, looking uncertain but friendly nonetheless. Why ever would this white woman stop her car, was she lost, angry? Would this cause trouble for him?

He was an utterly unremarkable looking fellow, round faced beneath his hard hat, wearing blue coveralls like all the other workers, the same dark skin and eyes. I had never gotten more than half a glimpse of him while driving by, usually hidden in shadow, but this man had made me happy. Happy every. single. day.

I had no trouble smiling at him. In fact, it nearly cracked my face. Someone once said that smiling is the best way to connect with people from anywhere and everywhere, and it worked here. I didn't ask his name, since it might have made him nervous. Instead, I asked him, pointing to the shack where pinwheels were jauntily spinning, some better than others, "did you do this?"

Yes, madam, yes yes, my work madam.

"You have made me so happy!" I exclaimed, and, there's no other way of describing this, his face blossomed into joy. I told him, though whether he had any idea of what I was saying, that he and his beauty had made me smile every single time we drove past him, and that I had thought good things about him each time, too, and that now we were leaving and I couldn't go without saying thank you for his gift.

I said shukriyaa and dhanyavad and patted his arm and said namaste and bowed with my palms together and, hoping and praying that I had covered all possible bases, handed him a 100 dirham bill. My new-old friend was both astonished and pleased, though whether he knew what I was thanking him for, I shall never know. And that didn't matter.

I had brought my camera to take a photo of him, and his cheerful shack. But I left it in my purse. This was not a time to be a tourist. I would hold the memory instead.

And I have.

I expected to cry, driving away from him, to cry at the airport, leaving this place that had had such an impact on me, on all our lives, but I didn't.

Instead, I thought about how that ordinary, supremely wonderful person had frantically motioned for me to wait after he had seen me back to my car. He ran back to his shack to get his flag, and with great pride and dignity, stopped the traffic so that I could go safely on my way.

He waved and waved and waved until I couldn't see him in the mirror anymore.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

It's's pouring...but I ain't complaining...'cause I love the rain.

Back in the States. For some reason I expected it to be easy. In some ways it was. And in other ways, it wasn't. The easy things are no fun to talk about, so let's move right past them to those aspects that, well, let's say needed some tuning up.

First was driving. I think I mentioned that when we came home last summer suddenly I was the most aggressive driver on the freeway. This time I was determined to be a careful, courteous motorist. Which is a very nice thought.

Archway, Souk Madinat, Dubai
Pretty much the first thing I did was try to flatten a small dog. The idiot woman walking said dog had him on a very long leash and while she was safely on the sidewalk approaching an intersection, small pooch was nearly to the middle of the street. Screeching brakes, nasty look as bit of yelping fluff was dragged backward 8 feet to be gathered into the arms of the owner (of both the look and the dog).

Er, whoops.

But I'm getting ahead of my own story. Before attempting to shorten a canine's life by several scores of seven years, we needed a car. And, to make it easy, we bought the exact same type of car we had owned two years ago, a nice Honda SUV. Admittedly, it isn't half as sexy as the ones we had in the Middle East, but such is life.

To this end, Mike took out about $20,000 in cash and we went and bought the car we wanted. At least, we thought that's what we would do. But the bank didn't have that kind of cash to give us and had to order it. We could pick it up in a few days.

Huh. How odd.

Then the salespeople at the car dealership were giving us fisheye, weren't terribly pleased to have to call in two of their accounting folks to count the pile of dough, and, per law, reported us to the IRS. For having too much paper money.

Again, how very odd. Isn't having money good? Shouldn't they have been happy to have been paid in cash?
Waaaaait, now we remembered. Nobody in the US would carry that kind of money around! Nobody except maybe criminals. And clueless folks who had lived in the Middle East so long they forgot their native ways, adopting instead the ways of their new land.

If you wanted to buy a car in the UAE you would get the cash and, you know, buy it. Why make it complicated? The banks there allow you to withdraw stacks of money without so much as raising an eyebrow, checking only one piece of identification. It is your money after all. So we felt a little silly not remembering that financial transactions are performed differently in the States.

At least now I had the car, and I was determined not to run a stop sign. One does not stop for stop signs in the UAE. I mean, you could, but you'd get rear-ended for your trouble. Since everyone agrees they're superfluous, below notice, and there to indicate an intersection, it's not a problem. I have heard of more than one expat returning to US getting busted by local law enforcement for not giving the octagonal red signs their due.

Back to that fateful morning, I had stopped for the stop sign, a complete, perfect stop. And I had waited my turn, also perfectly. But I had forgotten that in the United States, drivers are responsible for not running down pedestrians, be they two or four-footed.

Now, I'm not saying that it's all right to mow down folks in the Middle East, but it is understood that cars are bigger than people, and if the two try to occupy the same space at the same time, the people would lose. Lose badly, generally, against something made of metal that goes faster and weighs lots more than you do.

Simple physics.

Physics apparently take back seat to the sort of bossiness and self-righteousness that I think stems from watching too much daytime television. There sure are a lot of people willing to tell me how to drive.
They are obviously confused, I don't even let me husband tell me how to drive. Not that that stops him from trying, but, again, different story.

To compensate, I often drive like a nervous old lady. Which probably isn't much better, but keeps me out of traffic court.

I'd also like to say it's not like I wanted to run over that dog. Owner, maybe, but not the dog.

Whoops. Sorry. I forgot that honesty isn't always a virtue.

Moving on: in another session of Returned Can-I-Still-Blame-Jetlag Expat Cultural Misunderstandings 101, I was yelled at for recycling.

No, really, I was. One of the places we stayed while waiting to move back into our house didn't have a place to recycle. So I drove my assiduously collected and sorted bags of cans and paper and glass to a local store, went around the back to the recycling containers and started to dump my stuff in, careful to put the correct items in the correct receptacle. An accusatory shriek cut through the air. "Ex-CUSE me! That's a PRIVATE recycling dumpster!!"

Cue me standing there like a rabbit in the headlights with a half-empty bag of aluminum cans held aloft, looking confused. I had forgotten that here in the enlightened everyone-recycles Pacific Northwest you do indeed pay to recycle. Sheesh.

In Dubai it's free. Encouraged. In fact, if I'd taken my recycling to the grocery store where there are bins the fellow sweeping the street would have stopped, rushed over, taken the bags from Madame and placed them in the containers FOR her, and most likely refused any coin or thanks.

Now home, I was completely taken aback to be dealing with a banshee who was getting high off self-righteously treating me like a thief. Which did not please Madame, especially after I apologised for my mistake, thanked her for helping me correct it, and even offered to pay for any additional cost my borrowing the container might have incurred, also asking if there was a local recycling center where I could take my detritus.

"How the hell would I know?" she spat, "it's not my employer's dumpster, and I'm not the Queen of Recycling, lady. Look it up in the phonebook."

Gritting my teeth, determined to remain nice, I went into the store she indicated, feeling a bit like a dog who's done something untoward on the carpet. The Chinese fellow who owned the store couldn't make heads or tails out of what I was saying, and I gave up. It was causing both of us more grief than it was worth. I bought something small to excuse my presence in his store and bowed my way out. the dead of night...I sneaked that recycling into a neighbor's half-empty recycling container, ready to be picked up the next morning and ran like hell back to the house where Mike was grinning at my farcical attempt at ninja recycling. I tried to appear nonchalant. Which is hard to do when you're panting. He didn't buy the act, but I tried.

Maybe I had a reason to feel a little paranoid. After all, total strangers were watching and waiting for me to make a mistake. Putting their dog out in the street where I would be sure to run over it...OK, maybe that one is a stretch.

Hurdle #2 was food. Ah food. Never far from my mind. While the first weeks of our being back were filled (stuffed, actually, packing on the pounds on top of the European gorge-fest...but that's another blog) with the foods, and especially the restaurant food, we couldn't get in the Middle East. I have to say they were, without exception, fattening: burgers and microbrews and local confections in particular.

Once the novelty of getting those nostalgic foods wore off, suddenly we found ourselves nostalgic for foods we could get in the Middle East but not here. Like...inexpensive and ultra fresh juices.

Orange juice seller, Dubai Creek

When my sister came out to visit us in Dubai, she too became addicted to the juices, and she was only there for two weeks! I mean, even at McDonalds the juice comes fresh squeezed. And the varieties are endless. Pineapple and strawberry and guava and mint, lemon and cantaloupe, watermelon and mango, mangosteen and, and (sob) my beloved chickoo.

I was also missing the ease of Ready-Brek, a powdered oatmeal, just add warm water, stir, and you have a nutritious breakfast for the kids. This is genius, to my mind, and why we don't have it here is beyond me. I have bemoaned, with other expats back from there, the pancake mix that comes in a red box (oh, so tasty), and I had to find a substitute for Thomas' drink of choice, camel milk. With the adaptability of children, he quickly learned to love the drive-thru barista stands, flavored steamed milk with whipped cream in the cup and on the lid and straw an acceptable alternative. At $2.50 it better be.

Pitiably, I have to do my own ironing again and am kind of missing being called Madam.
Good thing I never has a full-time maid. More than one American woman has tried to come back home and realised she can't do a danged thing for herself any more. How embarrassing to admit that, but true. A simple, proven fact: it's not all that bad to be treated like royalty.

But it's also nice for the checker at the grocery store to feel free to have an opinion and to feel free to share it with you, and I can bag the groceries any way I please.
I'm not sure that's a great trade, so I'll pretend I don't miss it that much.

Now, hurdle #3. Return to reality. As in, no, we're not flying to Thailand for Spring Break.

Burmese Elephant Rider, Thailand

I wish.

Thomas still has absolutely no grasp of distances. Being on a plane is almost as normal to him as breathing. He was on at least 20 flights for who knows how many hours during the last two years.

Thomas, Umm Sequim Beach, Arabic Gulf

Adjusting has been harder for him in a lot of ways, especially in that he frets about whether we are going to stay or move again. Understandable, if guilt inspiring. We bounced around when we first got back: at Mike's parents' house...then my parents' house, then back to Mike's parents' house, and then in a furnished vacation home, then finally, 4 months later, back in our old house. Before we could move back into our old house we had to wait...and wait...and wait for our shipping container to arrive. And in that shipping container was Thomas' bicycle. His first big boy bike, and boy, was he worried. We had to check the globe on a regular basic to track its progress across the oceans.

You never saw a bigger smile than when that little man got his bike back, and in one piece, too. Major relief.

The reality for us was trying to not only fit the who we used to be with the who we are now, but all the stuff from those two realities had to come together as well.

It was also an adventure just to reacquire our stuff from the shippers, but just thinking about it makes me tired, so you'll have to use your imagination.

Some things, like the extremely heavy and exotic diningroom table, inlaid with metals and ceramics, best described as massive, well, it doesn't fit this house. Literally. It is nicely wrapped up in the garage and there it shall remain.

Other things, like the Persian rugs, look even more beautiful here than they did in the UAE. How a burgundy red and navy rug can match a cream and pale green and  purple decor, I don't know. But it does. Somehow, it does.

Water container, Al-Shindagha, Dubai

If I say to Thomas, say hello in Arabic, he obediently replies "Hello in Arabic!" But if he sees a woman in a headscarf he, more often than not, will march right up and greet her, Sala'am alaikum! This leads to some interesting discussions. Which also leads to the real hurdle: how to describe our lives in Dubai without sounding snobby, spoiled or pretentious? Or, just as bad, unhappy to be home.

Burj Al Arab\

Even without the worrisome snooty factor, how do you sum up another country? How do you describe two years and what that time and place has done to you?

This is not to say that we don't LOVE being asked.

We do. We really do. Seriously, ask us over, throw out some coffee and we will talk your heads off.
To the casual, curious, man-on-the-street I say: Dubai was luxurious. Hot. Everything was over-the-top impressive. I wore clothes exactly like the ones I'm wearing now, no, wearing a burka or living in a compound had nothing to do with our everyday lives. We travelled a lot. Yes, I miss travel, and the kids were really good at it too. Made lots of friends. Yes, I really miss those friends, but I'm happy to be here with you. It was really, really hot. And yes, it was very beautiful.

Did I mention hot? No, not a dry heat.

To you, I can also say that there are days when I wish the muzzein would sound unexpectedly as I walk down the street. And that sometimes the kids cuddle up to the blasting heater as close as they can without actually bursting into flame.

Arabic Coffeepot (dallah) Bab al Shams, UAE

In general, people comment that our kids are far more outgoing than the average American child, more at ease with people. I don't know if that is a byproduct of travel, living abroad, or simply the way they are.
People tell me I'm more confident as well, though my Dad gently but firmly pointed out that I might want to loosen up a little on making sure the dog doesn't smell like a dog, that it wouldn't have concerned me "before".

I've gone back to Fahrenheit from Celsius, not that I ever got particularly good at the latter, and to miles from kilometers. I'd be lying if I didn't say that is a real relief.

We watch the events unfolding in the Middle East with entirely new eyes, thinking especially of our friends there. There are no words to explain how different it is to know people that are doing their best to live in some of those places described in the headlines.

Last, our family agrees on one thing: even though Thomas is reticent to touch a cold wet car handle to open his door, (at least he doesn't have to use a potholder to keep from scalding his fingers!) we do so love the sound of the rain.

And I've yet to run a stop sign.

At least, not one I noticed...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The bluest skies you've ever seen are in Seattle...

Blue Mosque minaret detail, Istanbul

For a while there, it was uncertain as to where we were going next with spousal unit Mike's work. As you know, we ended up back in our old house in Seattle. Which is a good thing. However, it was kind of fun to look, and look back at the options.

Ooh! There was a job in Turkey! We liked Turkey. Turkey is good!

No, the schools were too far from the jobsite. We'd only see Mike on weekends. Jordan, same story. There are a lot of things we are willing to do, but so far, having Mike miss more of the kids growing up is not one of them.

Petra, Jordan

Madagascar, was the next big job, and several of our friends went. We said erm, no. Staggering poverty and it...just...isn't an ideal place to take kids. New Zealand, oh yeah! Now we're talking.

But we weren't. The job didn't appeal to Mike.

He's so selfish sometimes. (OK, so he's not, but I think I deserve some sort of award for not giving him more of a hard time about it.) Ironically, his boss here ended up going, and asking Mike for expat advice. Go figure.

The job in Trinidad wasn't starting soon enough to work for us. Aw, man, the Caribbean! Shoot.

Calgary, Alberta looked like a real option, enough so that I was asking around and picking the brains of past visitors and residents of the prairie city, and had tracked down the Calgary Road Runners, but the company who was courting Mike took too long and we ended up turning them down. Too bad. I like Canadians. Of course, we probably would have been freezing for the first six months or so.

All this gave our relatives in Seattle whiplash trying to keep up with where we might end up. I think it was as much of a relief to them as it was to us when we decided.

So, we came home to Seattle after all. And in Seattle Mike went to work on a job in...Lima, Peru. Which is where he is now, actually. Don't worry, it's just a business trip, he'll be back. And don't worry, I'll get to go with him one of these times. As far as I know, and as far as we intend, we're not moving there.

Moving away from the land of conjecture, we traded in the Burj Khalifa, tallest building in the world for another landscape icon, the Space Needle, less than a quarter of the Burj Khalifa's height, but darned quirky.

And we traded our wall-climbing geckos and garden tortoise for this guy :

an overly affectionate Chocolate Lab named Buck

though we didn't entirely escape geckos. Nor would we want to. Thomas has an Albino Leopard Gecko, happy in her sandy cage in his room. Fair enough, since the dog went to Bethy.

We also traded that land of heat and desert and exotic exploration

for Alpine lakes and evergreen trees:

hiking in the Cascade Mountains

leaving behind the stunning oranges of the desert for greens and blues, our mountains, our tall, magnificent trees. We did miss the oranges, though, which made the pumpkin fields of autumn even more special.

It's funny, I never thought I would love anyplace as much as the Pacific Northwest, would never think that anyplace was as beautiful, call anyplace else home, but Dubai and the UAE will always have a special place in my heart, a place that aches sometimes. My senses miss the spices, the scents, especially of sand and heat, the sharp tang of incense, the accents and languages, and my heart misses the people.

There's no place like home, but what happens when you realise that more than one place can be home?

Thomas, especially, misses Dubai, and asks to go back on a fairly regular basis, no matter how many times I tell him buddy, it's too far. He has no concept of such things. After all, he flew there and back several times, what's one more airplane ride to him?

When folks here ask if there was anything he didn't like about living in Dubai, it's not the staggering heat Thomas remembers. No, he says he didn't like moving away. It was his world and home from ages 2 to 4 years old, and that left its mark on him.

We all love being home here in the Pacific Northwest, but the siren call of travel still echoes...

Monday, March 14, 2011

This is the dawning of the rest of our lives on holiday...

the fantastic Antwerp Train Station
We left Antwerp in style, that is to say, on the train with a nice bottle of French wine that we savored as the countryside of Belgium and then the Netherlands rolled by, the sun setting in flaming oranges and pinks, fading to violet and then gone in the west, the train swaying gently back and forth. It would be nice to say that we were looking pretty sophisticated at this point, but actually at the station we'd severely misjudged where our ride, train car #18 would be. Far down the line, right?

We'd waited somewhat down the tunnel and when our train rolled in the first car was #14, ours a mere 4 cars back. We had to dash with our luggage once more. Ah well, no fooling anyone. We are scrambling travellers. Not sophisticates. Somewhere, with a chic hat and adorable heels there is a tall, slim woman and her escort who only has eyes for her, striding gracefully onto the train, probably with a pale greyhound on a leash. But that's not us.

In Amsterdam we were allowed to go through the initial security 12 hours before our flight, since we were staying at an airport hotel. This was the space age "Yotel". If you think that sounds Mork and Mindy, you should have seen the room. One reserves online and then checks in at a sort of ATM machine which gives you the card for you room. If you can make it work. Then you go down a white, highly institutional corridor and enter a small, sterile capsule that is not terribly unlike getting on the plane early, though with a bed and shower and no flight attendants.

I took no photos of the Yotel...nothing to see really. Not bad, modern and plastic, though with a floor to ceiling clear glass-wall between the bedroom and bathroom that made me cringe. It was the sort of place that made me wonder if room service, had there been room service, might just bring by a steaming plate of Soylent Green. And we all know what THAT is, don't we?

The purpose of the Yotel was to have a place to rest before your flight, and be able to quickly and easily get to your gate at departure. It was definitely this and beat the heck out of perching in a airport chair or staying in a hotel in the city, worrying about whether you'd be able to get through town and security to your flight on time. In fact, this was one of the better moves we've made as travellers.

However, in a sadistic move, the designers of our "suite" had given us a battery of cute buttons that made the bed go up and down and so forth, and controlled the television, also made it apparently impossible to turn of all the lights at the same time to get some sleep.

For instance, if one pushes the button with footprints on it, the bathroom glows with, what they again sadistically describe as, a "restful purple light." Somebody was laughing when they wrote that one. I think it might have been Dogbert.

Park your bike here. No wait! Don't park your bike here! (park your bike on the windowsill?)

Since we're basically intelligent and patient people, (and persistent to the point of stubbornness), I can only imagine the F bombs (or their foreign equivalents) dropped by sleep-deprived travellers faced by this, that, and then the other light coming on and turning off in no pattern discernible. At least, not to us , at any rate.

The saving grace of that room, which made me willing to bury my head beneath a pillow after finally accepting that there would be some lights on no matter what we did, was the Sage Seaweed all-over body wash. I was willing to forgive an awful lot for that, including the reveal-all glass wall and the drains that, perhaps to be in the same league as airline toilets, made noises not unlike the death croaks of extraordinarily large toads. The wash was delectable and I think using it made me more Earth-friendly and reduced my cholesterol.

In the morning we gathered up our things, probably checked out, and went to stage 2 of security. In Amsterdam the passengers of each plane must go through a secondary round of security where you, your children, and your luggage are x-rayed, your ID and boarding pass are checked again and you are questioned by one or two security officers before you can enter the waiting area before you board the plane.

During the question and answer portion of this process there is an unavoidable furtive feeling of guilt that swamps even the most unimaginative would-be passenger. Personally, my mind goes blank and I turn red. I would love to know how they sort the stuttering innocents whose brains shut down at the simplest inquiry from those rare nasties who would actually wish harm to a flight.

The only thing I had to make me feel anxious were two small souvenirs and I'd put those WWII bullet casings from Normandy into my checked luggage, and made sure they weren't hidden and would be easily accessed should security want to inspect or seize them. After all, my scrapbooking stuff had looked suspicious enough to the international security folks in the States to open everything and give it a thorough once-over.

Those nice boys left me a polite note in apology for that in my suitcase, by the way. Can you believe it? Essentially: sorry for doing our job and keeping you safe. Wow.

Anyway, I wasn't terribly worried about them. I simply have an undeservedly guilty conscience. At least I think I don't deserve it...wait, maybe I do...augh!

After everyone is through security at Schiphol airport there's some more waiting. Eventually the plane is opened and, by section, there is a rush by the passengers to get to their seats.

This I have never figured out, unless it's all about the luggage placement. You're going to sit on the plane for hours, and hours, and hours in a seat that slyly asserts, "you should have sprung for business class, you cheap bastard." ("cheap" being relative, of course.) Your posterior goes numb and your sinuses shrivel up from that desiccating recycled airplane air. Who wants to hurry to that? If accepting all this as your lot in life doesn't make you feel like a bit of a chump, imagine how I felt when I asked the flight attendant which of the proffered meals she would choose, the beef or the chicken. She looked down in my general direction and said, without a hint of apology, "I never eat airline food."

How, exactly, does one respond to a pronouncement like that?

Perhaps it was that I unwrapped and ate the dinner anyway, or that my butt had indeed fallen asleep, despite that I got up and shuffled to the bathroom a good 5 times to Mike's once, and he only went because he was bored, (he's irritating that way), but I was ready to be done with the whole airplane business. The movies were still the same. Trains are infinitely preferable, if not practical on a transatlantic route. Here is what I wrote in my ever-present notebook:

I hate Greenland. It's just like when '3:30 AM' is relentlessly glowing on the nightstand clock when you what you desperately need to be doing is sleeping. Is it morning? Time to get up? No...still over Greenland...Greenland...and, wait for it, more Greenland.

Stupid blanking bleeping Greenland.

I've deluded myself into almost believing that we're on a road instead of in the sky, so when we dip and bump from turbulence it's merely that the roads in Greenland are not the best. No worrying about falling from the sky for me. What does it mean that not only won't the stewardess eat the meals but that has no problem telling ME that she won't?! There are several possibilities here and none of them make me feel very good in my tummy.

A long flight home is a good thing in some ways. After all, it gives me time to disconnect, control alt and delete the luxury of swear words and to reboot to clean mouth Mommy. Hopefully. It's a relief, too, that Mike and I won't have to work any more to make our mouths to French things, which sounds unpardonably dirty but by which I mean that we said "pahr-dohn" so often it was laughable and that my French accent attempts were painful to even my ears.

I can't wait to see the kids. I can't believe our time overseas is really, truly over. It's official: we are tired of travelling, and just want to be home.

Home, home, what a beautiful word.

Bethy and Thomas, 3 days later, at a roadside farm produce stand in the Evergreen State.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Feel like I'm walking the world, walking the world...

Thoughtful, if prickly fellow

and some really good Antwerp architecture.

Walking the tucked-away backstreets and thoroughfares of Antwerp, full of shops from designer to whimsical to antique, from chocolates to art, you can't help but notice that above the delightful places to spend and spend some more, there are elevated niches on many of the corners. In these niches the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus reside, ever serene, watching over those passing by.

There is something very nice in this.

As I understand it, for centuries in Belgium it was tradition for the priests and local people to process through the streets, carrying the bits and bodies of saints in reliquaries behind richly dressed statues of the Mother and Son like the one below.

In nearby Mechelen, since 1272, probably the largest and certainly oldest procession is held every year to thank the Virgin for freeing the city from plague. 739 years and counting. That's gratitude.

The churches we visited in Antwerp (and many had doors open to welcome us) are packed with religious treasures, ornate and elaborate, and very somber. This is a staggering contrast to the simple, clean and bright look and feel of everyday Antwerp.

Sometimes my largely dormant Cultural Anthropology education raises its nosy little head and asks things like "what does this contrast tell us about the citizens of Antwerp?"

(Usually all it wants to do it try out the new foods. Maybe I should have been a Nutritional Anthropologist like that fabulous lady on Alton Brown.)

Much richness is expressed but also a seeming lack of joy. Faith appears to be a lot of work. I mean, look at the carving that went into crafting the dark wood pulpit (above on the right, a closer view below).

and the altar, grand but also imposing.

Even with all that white and the spacious ceiling and flowers and candles you would never have raised your voice above a whisper, never felt it would be springtime there among the incense. The graves beneath our feet might have contributed to the somber impression, the weightiness of religion.

Back outside, the blue skies and bride-to-be party leaping for a photographer

brightened us right back up and I felt Antwerp-y again. Beer, anyone? Chocolate? To be fair, perhaps it wasn't the churches so much as a funny pre-hangover-esque pang of anticipation, that we knew we were only on our very last day of what had been not just a three week vacation for us, but also at the end of two years abroad in a very different and exciting sort of life.

Now it was time to pack up our bags one last time and to say good-bye.

Or as the Dutch would say, Doei.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Walk this way...

rooftops of Antwerp

Antwerp differed from our other stops in that we had no plan, didn't go to a single museum or Place of Great Historical Significance. Also we weren't even really sure what the local language was. Flemish? Dutch? French? An amalgam of all of the above? Strangely, this didn't really bother us too much. Everyone spoke English anyway. Convenient.

We'd figured out that Jupiler (not Jupiter, as we'd initially thought it was called) was the beer of choice, located an Irish Pub within half an hour of setting foot in the city, and our hotel room at the Radison Blu was elegantly modern and close to the railway station.

which is stunning, a tourist attraction in it's own right. had we a guidebook we would have known that you can tour the rooftop...but we didn't. Ah well.

We also didn't go to the nearby and famous Antwerp Zoo, one of the oldest in the world,


nor did we search out anything to do with diamonds, even though Antwerp is the mothership. Some 70% of the worlds polished diamonds are traded there. Eh, diamonds schmimonds.

Instead of doing what we might have done had we been in possession of a guidebook, we first figured out the local train system. After spying it on a map we (OK, I) just had to hunt down Elisabeth Station. It's spelled the same way as Bethy's full first name, you see, therefore I needed a cheesy photo.

There. Perfect souvenir. We walked around on streets like these and didn't worry about what time it was or getting lost or anything else.

Grote Markt, the central square of Antwerp was an obvious direction for even the most oblivious tourist, so we trotted obediently in that direction, following the bells of the Cathedral of our Lady.

We decided on principle against paying to enter the cathedral proper,

which may or may not have been worth the entry fee as it is very grand indeed, as you can see from the door.

Later in the day we paused at the doorway again to listen to a violinist playing a nearly flawless and very fast Bach's violin concerto in E major. This particular piece happens to be my personal nemesis. Mike recognised it instantly even though I haven't tortured him or myself with practicing it for a good ten years. This is no reason not to enjoy someone else playing it.

There was no charge to go into the gift shop, (go figure!) so we went in there and peeked around to see the sanctuary. It was fortunate we did this; had we not we would have missed what we irreverently christened "Holy Rollers" for sale:

These six-sided pieces of wood have a different grace on each side, available in the language of your choice. I think they would be great for kids...roll the dice and say yer grace, children.

The Grote Markt,

where cars are forbidden, is a marvelous place to walk around and admire the Flemish renaissance architecture, such as the 16th century city hall:

Many of the buildings were crowned with multiple gold statues, and the cathedral soars above them all. We watched a wedding party gather, including little flowergirls in their darling, overpoweringly frilly white dresses in front of the Brabo Fountain which stands in the middle of the square.

Now, this fountain depicts a man holding a large severed hand aloft with water flowing intermittently out of the chopped end. Tasty.

Antwerp is a port city and in days of old, the legend tells, a nasty giant charged high tolls to the sailing crews wishing to enter the city. If the sailors couldn't pay the giant, in a very giantish way, took the sailors' hands as payment. Not terribly friendly, and an interesting take on the arm-and-a-leg pricetag.

Fortunately for the sailors, a hero named Brabo took things into his own hands (sorry, couldn't help myself) and vanquished the giant by whacking off his head and in a tit-for-tat move, one of the monster's hands. The statue shows Brabo flinging the severed limb into the Scheldt River, freeing Antwerp to become a major trading center.

Nowadays you can buy a nice giant's hand made out of Belgian chocolate as a souvenir to bring home to the grandkids. Can't you just see the t-shirts? "My grandma loves me and went to Antwerp and all I got was this lousy severed hand."

Actually, depending on the kid, that might be pretty cool.

We heard a clop-clop-clop sound and turned to see a tall carriage drawn by honest-to-goodness Belgian draft horses. It's entirely possible I went a little cuckoo with the camera.

There wasn't even a line to ride, so we climbed happily up to the seats, plopping ourselves down onto buttery leather seats. The team stood patiently, patted and cossetted by small children until the dour-faced, white haired, hatted driver reappeared and with gruff sounds and hand gestures shooed them away, a flock of disappointed little birds.

He may have been cranky to children but, not speaking a word, he gave us each beer coupons after we paid a reasonable amount for the tickets. Taking the reins, he clucked to the horses, and they began to pull us easily along a route they'd obviously traversed before.

If you ever get the chance to ride in a carriage I would highly recommend taking it. People's faces lit up as they smiled and some even laughed delightedly at the sight of the team pulling a carriage over cobblestone streets. We were like rock stars, swaying gently back and forth high above the adoring crowds that gathered to watch and photograph us.

There is something terribly romantic about travelling through a city as someone might have hundreds of years ago. Not only was it a wonderful way to see the area, it was also made it easy to plan where we would explore on foot later.

Antwerp is very, very European, not postcard perfect but darned close, and so unpretentious it takes no effort whatsoever to relax at a streetside table enjoying the view and people watching as you also enjoy a beer and a thick slice of meatloaf smothered in saucy cherries with tiny potatoes.

At least, that's what I did. Also highly recommended.

I'll leave you with this bit of graffiti, one I found funny only because it was next to the "Omlegging" sign, which I believe translates to 'detour.'

Isn't that the perfect Dutch-esque name for that fellow?