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.