Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A note on our children's Christmas gifts

At some point during Christmas Day I checked my mail and Facebook (to send off a few Christmas wishes), and realized as I read my friends’ posts about what they were doing, that our children had received no electronic games or handheld gaming devices of any kind. A lot of posts read “Busy morning opening presents. Now kids are quietly parked in front of their new [insert any gaming device here].” My boys were patiently building 2000-piece Lego constructions or playing Christmas songs on their instruments.

I’m not trying to patronize or anything here – I think parents know best how to raise their own kids, and I have no opinion about what is best for other people’s kids. I’m certainly not an anti-electronics freak either. I love watching movies with the boys (William got Nicholas Nickelby from Santa, which we watched the next day) and let them play computer games too. It’s just that my kids do better with a little less gaming/passive watching and more reading/creative play/music/etc., and adding hand-held devices to their already busy spare-time would simply be too much. They have so much fun playing or reading or doing other things anyways, so why complicate things?

So, when I realized that we had somehow managed to not fall for the pleas of our boys and the general advertisements and trends all children’s Christmas gift shopping seemed to suggest we couldn’t live without - and that the boys had forgotten all about it anyways; that they were perfectly happy without a DS or PSP or any other acronym this Christmas Day – I felt very happy. A merry Christmas indeed.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Our first Christmas in Beirut, Lebanon 2010

It took a bit of puzzle work, but when Christmas Eve came around, we were totally ready for Christmas. We had Swedish rice porridge with cinnamon and sugar, along with ham sandwiches for supper. Then we all watched the new DVD we had got at the Virgin Megastore a few days earlier, A Christmas Carol with Jim Carrey, and Courtney roasted chestnuts over the grill on the balcony. The boys were so excited they had trouble going to sleep, so as always, Courtney and I ended up staying up way too late wrapping presents and setting everything up for the next morning. Yes, despite his nine years, August is still a firm believer in Santa Claus, and because we think it’s cute, and innocent, and well, Christmasy, we endorse it. I tell the boys stories from my childhood about how everything turns magic on Christmas night, how animals can talk, and I tell them to look out the window for a glimpse of Santa. Of course, we also follow Santa’s ride on Google Earth.

At the end of the night, our living room was perfect: vibrant with Christmas spirit. The cookies and milk were consumed, leaving crumbs as evidence, and Courtney and I settled brains for a looong winter’s nap. Which was cut short of course; our kids can sleep until ten on any given school day, but on Christmas, they are always awake before dawn. Luckily, they are also very good at following rules, and ours are, “Only open what’s in your stockings, play with that, and let mama & daddy sleep until 8 am.” This year Santa had cleverly put multiple piece Bionicles in the boys’ stockings, which took them a good solid 45 minutes to put together. Add some playing time, and Courtney and I got a bit more time in bed. Then we opened a few presents each, had breakfast, and then opened some more presents. The boys were so happy with everything they got: William a guitar, August an electrical piano, Abraham a tricycle and a stroller for his dolly, and lots of Legos, books, and games. The Powerminer set August got took him pretty much the rest of Christmas Day to put together, and William worked on his Lego sets. Abraham played with his train set for hours. Early afternoon we had our Swedish Christmas feast – wonderful! – and then we went for a walk on campus; Abraham pushing his stroller with Ernie in it, and William with his ant-collecting kit. In the evening we had some more Christmas food and played the games the boys had got: Monopoly and Scotland Yard. The boys also played their two Lego games, which are really cool. Everyone fell asleep early; exhausted and very happy.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Swedish Christmas food in Lebanon

Courtney and I have decided that this year’s Christmas dinner will be Swedish. We might still have a turkey dinner at some point, but on Christmas we will eat all the nice things – or at least as many as we can find or make – that the Swedish Christmas smorgasbord or "julbord" entails. To prepare for this, we have among other things put a bunch of little herrings in salt in a plastic bag in the kitchen. You are supposed to put them in only partially cleaned, and the boys had a lot of fun ripping the heads of little fish and pulling the guts out. Boy, did our kitchen smell like fish for a couple of days! The fish are to remain there for a week before we can clean them, let them sit in water for a day, and finally put them in a jar with sugar, spices and onion in vinegar to pickle. I can’t wait to taste it – our own pickled herring! We have also put spices – cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves - in a bottle of vodka, which will serve as our Christmas snaps. We have pickled beets so that we can make the beet salad. Later this week we will put raw salmon in a plastic bag in the fridge with salt, sugar, and dill to make gravlax. We will make Swedish meatballs, bake bread and paté. And on Christmas day we will make Jansson’s frestelse (scalloped potatoes with anchovy), beans, ribs, eggs with shrimp and caviar, and a few other things we love, for example glogg and gingerbread snaps. What we haven’t found to prepare is a ham, but will settle for the kind you can buy in the deli at TSC. Although it will not be our own baked ham, it will have to do, and with the Swedish mustard I have carried here from across the world, saved and cherished, it will still be good. God Jul!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

I'm making lots of lists, and checking them twice...

A whole week has gone by – so quickly – without me being able to write a single blog post. Every day has been filled to the brim with activities, and tonight I’m only sitting here writing by the kitchen table because I sat down to check a recipe on my laptop and now I can’t get up. My feet ache, my eyes are droopy, and my back wants me to rest.
The advent candelabra is lit next to me. All four candles are flickering beautifully, and looking at the light I feel both joy and panic at the same time. Joy, because Christmas is near, and yes, I love Christmas. Panic, because, well - any of you mothers or fathers out there getting ready for Christmas knows why I feel panic: there are still a million things I have to buy, make, or do before this weekend, and there are so few days left.
I am listening to a youtube clip from the AUB Choir and Choral Society Christmas concert earlier this week, and the music is calming. I have added the clip as a separate blog post. Isn’t the music amazing? You can barely see me at all, because I’m standing in the middle, pretty much hidden from the camera by the conductor the entire time, but I can certainly hear my own voice among all the others.
We, the choir, performed on Monday and Tuesday this week. Courtney returned from Belgium about ½ hour before the first concert, exhausted, at the nick of time to take over the boys while I sang. Tuesday and Wednesday were lots-of-work and catching up days, on Thursday we had company for dinner, and on Friday Courtney had to meet with students all day and then we went to a Christmas party. Saturday was as always filled with sports on campus, and while the boys were at their activities, Courtney and I took Abraham with us downtown to get the bulk of our Christmas shopping done. Probably the last year we can bring him like that. In the afternoon we made individual runs, smuggling bags into the house, while the boys played in their room. At the end of the day we were satisfied, although not finished.
Today we went for a walk around town, and when we came home the boys & I made a gingerbread house while Courtney worked. The house looks much nicer this than last year I think, colorful and fairly straight – it might also be the extra details we added at the boys’ request, such as a fence, and lots of sunflowers, pea shooters, doom-shrooms, walnuts, and other characters from their favorite game Plants vs. Zombies. Abraham had fun throwing candy at the roof and watching it stick to the frosting. Then he picked the candy off again and ate it. I just noticed the doorknob is missing as well. Hmmm…
And now I was in the middle of a major clean up/laundry run when I remembered that I should start a shopping list. I want to make some of our Christmas food early this week, in advance, and tomorrow we are going to see friends after school, and things will be generally busy. Of course I’m also doing a million things alongside my writing, laundry, cleaning, and list making. Abraham stirs and I have to help him get settled back to sleep, or August comes out and needs a drink of water, or Courtney wants me to look at a paragraph he’s working on. I’m looking at the piles of books and heaps of toys laying around everywhere, and things keep popping up in my head, things I need to add to my lists; to-do, to-buy, to-make. Oh, and now William wants me to find him a pair of socks in the pile of unfolded laundry that is covering my bed. He says his feet are so cold he can’t go to sleep. I need to get him socks for Christmas. We haven’t had to wear them for years, and the boys don’t have any that fit them. And I should send our friends that are visiting for Christmas and warn them about the cold, and really, really take care of that laundry pile. And…

AUB Choir and Choral Society performs Arvo Part's Magnificat

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Cold in Beirut

After all that rain and winds yesterday, I woke up this morning and it was... hmm, what's that word again? It was... I know, because I recognized it from years ago when we lived in Belgium... It was... umm, aah... COLD! Yes, that's the word. It was cold. Wonderfully cold! We're definitely not in Egypt anymore.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Living next door to a hospital

We live right next to one of the largest hospitals in Lebanon, The American University Hospital. Leaving our building, we basically always have to walk through the stream of patients on their way to or from the hospital: a lot of pregnant women or families carrying newborns, people with charts in their hands, smiles on their faces or tears running down their cheeks. Sometimes we see a car coming down the hill at an incredible speed, honking, plowing through traffic with a bleeding or otherwise hurt, sometimes unconscious, person in the passenger seat. Late at night I’ve seen young people, obviously under the influence of drugs, carry a friend to the ER.

There’s a children’s Cancer Clinic in the back of the hospital, which means that sometimes we see young children at our local grocery store or in the street, carried by their mothers or fathers, bold from radiation, exhausted, sad, tired, and the parents’ faces bare witness of hours of suffering and desperation. The first time we saw a child like that I had to spend a long time explaining to the boys. “Why is that girl bold? What happened to that girl? Why does she look so sad? Why is her father crying while carrying her? What is going to happen to her? Why do kids get cancer?”

To remind us that a hospital isn’t always able to make everyone feel better, from our balcony we have a view of an alley we’ve named “Hearse Alley” because, well, we've deducted that’s where they pick up the coffins. Almost every day we see a hearse or several pick up coffins being carried out of the hospital. The first time we noticed, incidentally, was on Halloween and the boys insisted it was a Halloween stunt. Since then however, we’ve learned otherwise.

Living next to a hospital is in a way comforting, but you're also reminded every day of the fact that we are - bluntly put - mortal.

Winter in Beirut - unprepared!

When we were getting ready to move to Lebanon, we noticed among all the information that we gathered that we should expect rain during the winter months. After three years of nothing but sun and heat in Egypt, this seemed too strange, too much of a theoretical forecast, for me to prepare for before we came here.

Today therefore, when the skies of Lebanon opened up and poured rain over us, blew strong winds, performed huge displays of thunder and lightning, and the Mediterranean Sea looked like something from the movie “The Perfect storm,” we were completely unequipped. To go to campus for the boys’ Saturday sports, we wore our light, open shoes and hooded sweatshirts, and neither stood a chance against the rain and flooded streets. All I had for Abraham was a fleece shirt and converse sneakers – luckily he had the stroller cover to keep him from getting completely soaked, but his little lips were still a light blue when we got home. I felt bad to put him through that, although he was mighty cute out there with the wind beating against his little face, blowing his wet hair backwards, his eyes blinking as he commented “A-wain! A-wahdeh!” All we could do was strip down – even our underwear soaked – and throw everything in the dryer.

As unpleasant as it is to get wet like that, we were all intrigued, not having experienced dramatic weather for so long, and the boys studied everything on their way home from campus with great enthusiasm: the impressive AUB drainage systems, waterfalls, wells, birds coming out to eat worms and bugs, the less impressive drainage system of Beirut’s streets, and the direction of the water. Of course, all water at this side of Hamra was flowing towards campus, which is at the bottom of the hill. I noted that cars in this weather show increased disregard for pedestrians, and we got more soaked from cars speeding past us through puddles, spraying us with water from the streets, than we did from the actual rain.

After a nice walk home though it was nice to change into our warm “stay-at-home-clothes” as William calls them. Next time we have to go out in the rain like that I would like to have more appropriate attires for everyone: rain boots and coats. I don’t know where to get them yet, but I’m sure I’ll find some when I go out shopping - after the rain stops.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A good day in the holiday spirit

Even though I was tired after last night’s late night packing, the leaving in the middle of the night, and the early morning awakening, today was a good day. The boys’ French lesson was great as usual, and I managed to clean up the house a bit while Abraham watched Elmo. I made the boys take their grade standard tests in English Language Arts to see how they are doing. William got every question right but went a bit too slowly. He still needs to work on his reading speed! August aced his test with flying colors. I should have known that the boys are doing great, but sometimes I just need some kind of confirmation that we are – or rather, I am - doing things “right.” The biggest challenge was trying to explain to them why their grade work can’t cease on the spot just because they “know all that they need to know this year.”

After school, the boys & I went out and bought a (fake) tree. I had forgotten that I had remembered to pack the tree lights in Cairo so along with the tree I picked up a new set of lights at the store. We decorated our tree as soon as we got home. Two strings of Christmas tree lights makes the tree VERY bright! Abraham only broke one of our precious Belgian decorations, and albeit small, the tree really looks beautiful, so I’d deem the whole endeavor a success.

We also managed to make Swedish cinnamon rolls this afternoon, had a nice hot lunch of French onion and potato soup with rye bread, and hot roast beef for dinner.

It was a very seasonal day. The boys are now watching the Muppets’ Christmas on the computer while I’m supposed to clean up after dinner. Happy holidays!

Busy week!

It was a busy week. Prof. Husband left for Belgium early this morning (4 am!) and the past few days were basically all about getting him and the family ready for his five-day trip and the busy days this weekend and the beginning of next week entail. We also had time to meet up with friends for cupcakes and Christmas caroling, AND a lot of school work, AND choir rehearsals, AND some Christmas preparations in the home.

Monday, December 6, 2010

You can try new foods, but don't eat Taro raw!

My husband and I enjoy adventures in the kitchen, as in we like to try new things to eat, new recipes, and enjoy cooking together, drawing from all food cultures around the world. While shopping at different grocery stores we therefore often pick things up we’ve never tried before: strange fruits or vegetables, funny looking dishes, odd seafood or meat (camel, anyone?), strange cheeses, or anything else we might find. Most often, we look up on the web whatever we picked up before attempting to prepare or eat it. On Saturday however, Courtney pulled out the Taro root as soon as we got home from TSC, excited to try it; peeled it, cut off a big piece, and ate it. Moments later he thought he was having a severe allergic reaction. He said his tongue, throat, and stomach burned like needles. He started feeling strange, woozy, and tried to throw up, but couldn’t. (I tried this some time ago after I accidentally ate raw egg yolk from a rotten egg, but couldn’t do it either. It’s really hard to make yourself throw up! I have no idea how those young model girls do it.) In any case, a few clicks on the web later and we learned that Taro has a chemical in it that is broken down during cooking, and if prepared properly, Taro is perfectly harmless. If eaten raw however, the chemical will hurt you, and can hurt you very badly. I licked a piece of the root just to confirm, and indeed, soon my tongue was burning too. (I know, one of our less smarter moments, but hey, we’re curious creatures!)

Courtney felt just fine the next day, and perhaps he was a lesson wiser too. What did we learn? Never to put things you don’t know what they are in your mouth.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Becoming Lebanese residents

Yesterday we went to the General Security Building in Beirut to sign our residence applications. According to instructions, the entire family had to attend so we all went, including the baby, although I doubted he would be signing anything, requested or not.

It was fairly easy to get through the first counter, our employer’s guide arranging everything. In the lobby there were signs hanging above directing visitors to “Visitor’s restrooms,” or “Lebanese Citizen’s Services.” “Arabs, Foreigners and Specials” were directed elsewhere, and a sign pointing downstairs indicated “Shooting Range.” Lovely.

The whole process was fairly painless: we waited X amount of minutes, signed our papers (only I was required to sign anything, and the boys came [read nearly tore up the place] in vain), and we were home by mid-morning.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Professor Husband returns home

Prof. husband returned safely from Turkey, if not entirely without mishaps. As I waited for him to come home on Monday night, monitoring his trip’s progress online, his flight status suddenly went from delayed to canceled. What?! Among all the illnesses and sleepless nights, I couldn’t believe it. A search later I could conclude that he probably would be on a later flight that would land him at our house sometime in the early morning. His lecture that day would probably be missed, but at least he would be home. Sure enough, around sunrise I heard the door rattle, and his precious steps enter the boys bedroom. I heard quiet hugs distributed, and then I felt a kiss on my cheek. Moments later I snuggled back to sleep with my husband beside me, home at last.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Sick children and stuck in the house

Of course, just moments after I finished the previous blog post, Abraham developed a high fever and threw up all over my bed. Since then he has got worse over the weekend - his fever turned into a cold, leading up to a full blown “wants nothing but mama, and either held, carried, or nursed 24/7, no sleep at night” kind of cold. After three days, needless to say, I’m beat. The boys have caught it too, whatever it is, but not as bad as their baby brother.
Most of all, I feel bad for Abraham and for the boys. The boys feel bad for Abe too. Whenever he coughs -it's obvious it really hurts him because he starts to cry - they say "I wish that was me instead of Abe!" As sick as our baby is, we haven't really been able to leave the house. The boys therefore have had to forfeit their promised Harry Potter movie theater visit, among other things we had planned as a treat while daddy was away. Yesterday I managed to get some milk, but today we’re simply just trying to hold out until daddy comes home.
Eight more hours.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A sick 22 months old boy

The few moments Abraham was awake this weekend, all he wanted to do was sit with the boys on the couch and watch Elmo, and he didn't last long. He soon came and asked me the standard question that is usually only reserved for nap time, "Mama? Na-nam, a-bed?"

Look at his miserable eyes. Is that a sick boy or what? And this is one of his more awake moments.

Most of the weekend he was so under the weather I started googling "lethargic, fever, cough," and "sore throat in baby." Do you know what you get when you do that? Nothing that a mother should ever have to read. There are good and bad things about the internet, huh?! Happily I've contained some sense, and will try to wait this one out. Hopefully he'll be better soon.

First of Advent celebrations in our house

Friday, November 26, 2010

In which Prof. Husband leaves for a conference abroad

Prof. Husband left for a conference in Turkey early this morning. Although he’s an invited speaker, the trip is paid for, and it’s going to look very nice on his CV, he was hesitant to leave. Not only had he not quite finished his paper, but he also has a lot of other work to do, hasn’t had much sleep lately, and really wasn’t up for the traveling.

Flying places takes a bit more effort in the Middle East, or actually, it’s not the flying itself, but everything surrounding it: Americans are upset because of the new x-ray machines at airports, but they have no idea how easy it is to travel in the US. Security levels are about the same everywhere, including here, but the paperwork here is more picky, and you can get in trouble for the most trivial thing. A friend of ours wasn't going to be let on a plane because the signature in his passport differed slightly from the signature on his credit card (this objection came from an airport official who writes in Arabic). The most tiring thing about it is that it’s unpredictable and completely depends on whoever you’re dealing with. At least in the US you know they’ll be strict about the weight limit, and if you’re over, well then you pay – there’s a solution. You know you’ll go through an x-ray machine and exactly what items you should not be carrying. Here there are rules, obviously, but in too many situations have I been exposed to arbitrary, unpredictable and unannounced regulations.

In any case, Prof. Husband is off, he took the phone, I’m sure it will be great, and I’m left with the boys for a few days. Let’s hope all goes well.

The rewards of homeschooling

Homeschooling; a lot of time and effort.

Spelling Workout Level B, student edition; $36.

Watching William, with pride and bliss, dance and sing from joy because he just finished his level; priceless.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving from Beirut!

A few days ago I managed to grab the last turkey at Idriss, an American Butterball turkey, and today I cooked it, to perfection, along with stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potato pie, corn, green beans with caramelized onions, cranberry sauce, and Beet, Walnut, Pear and Blue cheese salad. The boys made a fantastic pumpkin pie with shipped cream. It was just us, our family, and dinner was a bit disorganized, but still very nice.

Abraham came down with a fever last night and a stuffy nose. I think his throat hurts too because he won’t eat. While I was cooking he was watching Sesame Street with the boys, but as soon as dinner was on the table he wanted me to nurse him to sleep. So while everyone ladled food onto their plates I had no choice but to lay down in the bedroom with Abraham. Thankfully, he fell asleep almost at once, poor guy, and I could join the rest of the family. Dinner was very tasty, although we’ve never had one of these Butterball turkeys before: are they injected with something? It wasn’t bad but it seemed artificially juicy.

We were also not able to sit for as long as we usually do because Professor Husband is leaving for a conference in Turkey in the morning, and as always, he’s slavishly following his credos “Thou shall not write thou paper until the very last minute!” As soon as etiquette allowed therefore, he jumped up and anxiously continued his work.

It is evening now, and the kitchen is clean, Abraham is asleep – again – hopefully down for the night, and hopefully on the mend, the boys are listening to their audio files (they’re finishing Tom Sawyer), and Courtney is typing away in a battle against the clock (he’s being picked up at 3:15 am!). I am enjoying some wine while finishing off my husband’s packing, and thinking about all that I am thankful for: a wonderful family, near and far; food & shelter with a generator in the basement; the opportunity to do something exciting in my life with people I love, and to visit and live in places I never thought I’d go; friends, near and far; faith and the inspiration I have to do my best every day as a mother, wife, teacher, and person; and for everything else that makes my life and that of my fellow human beings so amazing.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 22, 2010

What grade is your homeschooler in? And how do you know, anyways?

Since we got to Beirut and sending our children to school became an option (homeschooling was really our only option in Cairo, but here there are a couple of possible schools, and our employer would pay for it), I’ve been thinking about grade levels: at a certain age, when and at what level should a child be? If my boys were to start a public or private school, what grade would they be in? What grade ARE they supposed to be in, anyways?!

Also, a lot of parents of children who attend public or private schools ask me how I know what grade my children are in. How do I know that they are doing a particular grade’s work?

The short answer is, Because I’ve done a lot of research, and I know what they should know and be able to do when.” To be more specific, I’ve written very detailed curricula based on information I’ve retrieved from educational websites, programs, state standards, and whatever other sources I’ve found useful, and besides letting my children take standard tests retrieved from several US state education departments, I’m making sure they fulfill their grade curriculum satisfactory.

In the US school system, it seems a child will usually start first grade the year he or she is six years old on 1 October (At least this is what it is like in the schools I know of). In Sweden, a child will start first grade the year he or she is turning seven (even though he or she might not be seven quite yet when school starts). In Belgium, a child will start school the year he or she turns six years old. These are the school systems we’ve taken into consideration, although the main factor in determining when to start a certain grade level for our boys has always been their maturity and readiness. Imprudent, I know, but hey, it’s our school system and we can do what’s best for our students! So August started first grade the year he turned six, as incidentally did William, only August was just six, and William was six and a half years old. This means that although there’s only a year and a half between them, they’re two full grades apart. Now William is almost a year ahead of his grade level in everything except for reading and writing, where he’s right on track. I can’t push him any faster without those two most essential subjects however, so on top of practicing these two particular subjects intensely every day, he’s doing a lot of extra activities, like art, music, and reading to Abraham while I work with August. He, on the other hand, is right on track in all his subjects but behind in writing, as in English composition. His handwriting is nice, and he has no trouble spelling, but putting together a text using his knowledge about paragraphs and topic sentences is quite a challenge. He’s doing fourth grade work in everything, and very well at that, but really; he writes like an early third grader or sometimes almost a second grader. Of course, again, because this is our school and we can do whatever we want, for example adjust our curriculum according to our students’ current needs, I’m slowing down all the other subjects for the moment to catch up with this particular one. “Operation Writing Camp” has been going on for a few weeks now, and I’m hoping that if we keep it up, we’ll see some progress soon.

Happy Independence Day, Lebanon!

Today, on November 22, Lebanon celebrates its Independence Day. It seems like it should have been November 8, but sometimes in history people do – in retrospect - pointless things, so it’s today.

After having been part of the Ottoman Empire for the longest time, Lebanon became a French Mandate during World War One. During World War Two, while France was occupied by Germany and busy fighting the Nazis, with a little help from, well, France’s enemy it seems (I have to study this further because the sources I’ve consulted so far are either a little vague or differ), Lebanon declared its independence. Fighting broke out, British forces involved at this point as well, afraid that the Nazis would take over Lebanon and Syria, but the violence ended, General Charles De Gaulle visited Lebanon, and France announced that Lebanon would become independent “under the authority of the Free French government.” Elections were held, and very soon, on 8 November 1943, the new Lebanese government unilaterally abolished the French Mandate, saying “Thanks so much, but we’ve got it from here.”

This could have been the end, right? France took offense, however, and without further ado threw the entire new government in prison. At this point in history though, the great bullies of the world could no longer do as they pleased, and following international pressure, the French released everyone on 22 November 1943 and accepted the independence of Lebanon.

Although the history of Lebanon has been rocky since that day, it seems at this point – I’m SO going to end with a cliché here – that the future of this beautiful country looks bright. Oh, and isn't Google being cute, too?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Time tables drills

I was helping William memorize the four times table today, which I find an arduous and tedious task to be honest, and I was complaining to Courtney that it’s on days like these that I wish someone else was educating our children. He pointed out however, that even if William was going to a public school, we would probably still be doing this repetitive quizzing with him until we knew he had the entire table memorized, as no teacher could possibly sit down with every student in their class like that. That’s when I remembered all those evenings with my dad, asking me over and over again to recite things that had to be memorized, everything from Latin verbs and German tenses to, that’s right, the time tables. I also remembered my friends complaining about how much homework their children have, and how hard it is to get them to do it after school every day, and how difficult it is. So, I guess if we’re going to have to do it, we might as well do it. Or something like that.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A break from The Big Book of Curries

After a full week of cooking from The Big Book of Curries, I’m a little tired of the ginger, garlic, lemon, coconut milk, curry, and rice combo, and have decided we’ll take a break for a few days. It’s a nice cookbook, and the recipes are elaborate enough to be interesting. As always, we add about three times the spices the recipes call for, which makes the food to our taste, but that’s what we do with most anything we cook. We’ll definitely use this cook book a lot in the future. For today though; bakes potatoes, a green salad, and steaks.

Going to the movies in Beirut #2

I took the boys to the movie theater yesterday to see Megamind in 3D. The theater was absolutely packed! Lines to buy tickets, lines to get candy, and all seats occupied. The Lebanese are a little better than the Egyptians at standing in line, or actually, they have a sense of what this might entail – as opposed to the Egyptians whose culture does not include anything like it at all. Still, there were a lot of university student aged kids who tried to get ahead. At one point when we were in line behind two children and their mother to buy popcorn, a guy came up and stood right next to William, trying to get ahead of the boys in front of us. He was holding up money, ready to make his order. I looked at him, he looked at me, and I said to him, “Are you seriously trying to get in front of these KIDS? You’re trying to butt in ahead of KIDS who are about to buy candy? No. There’s a line. Get in the back of it.” and I pointed to the end of the line. He looked very intimidated and backed off, just to send his girlfriend up a few moments later. I told her the same thing, and she too backed off. Everyone around me gave me appreciating looks. Goodness.

The movie was all right. I have a weak spot for Will Farrell, which helped. He does Megamind’s voice. The theater was not ideal for 3D however, and we didn’t get the best of seats, but all three boys enjoyed it so much, it was well worth it. Next time we’ll go on a weekday though, when it’s less crowded. The boys want to see the new Harry Potter movie, which is out today, I think. Living within walking distance of a movie theater is fun. Now if only we could find a baby sitter so that Courtney & I could enjoy it too.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Visiting the Beirut Souks and the Mega Toy Store

Yesterday I packed up the boys and walked downtown. It’s about a 20 minute walk through busy streets, but there are sidewalks, and the traffic moves fairly slowly, so it’s not so bad. It was a beautiful day, and we had a view of the sea almost the entire way. Yet, it seems people here don’t walk very much, because on our way, we probably had at least ten taxi drivers ask us if we needed a taxi.

We had two destinations in mind: H&M and the Mega Toy Store. No, that is the actually name of the toy store. Also, I was under the impression that H&M was part of the famous Beirut Souks, which I had been wanting to see for a while. It was very easy to find, but goodness. I was coming from Cairo, where a souk is a local market with fruit vendors, meat vendors, bird cages, chickens running around, stenches you can’t even imagine, people yelling, discussing prices, along a dirt road in a narrow alley, clothes lines up above, and the Beirut Souks were nothing like this. It looked like a giant outdoor extra fancy mall, with women in D&G jeans, high heels, and Armani sunglasses chatting on their Blackberries, while their dressed up children sipped chocolate milk at an overprized café. More women in clothes directly from the Versace window, having lunch with their girlfriends; really, it was like a set from Sex in the City. And there was I, with a giant jogging stroller, in my Eddie Bauer jeans and blouse, pink flip flops bought at the end-of-summer sales at Walgreen’s last year, and my boys dressed in soccer shirts from last year’s league, matching their torn shorts.

We entered the store with caution, but soon felt at home: H&M is Swedish after all, practically ours. William picked out clothes to try on in the fitting rooms, and August’s entertained Abraham by showing him the various Sesame street shirts, while I browsed through the store. Soon I noticed that my kids were by far the best behaved ones in there. There was a girl about eight, wearing a dress that must have cost a fortune, her hair obviously done by a professional, screaming at the top of her voice, stomping here feet in the ground, demanding something from her mother (who was obliviously chatting on her Blackberry). Two other boys, about the age of William, were walking around taking most things they could grab off the racks, “dropping” them on the floor, and a few other kids were just running around, yelling, out of control, no mothers to be seen. These women were not shopping with the kids, they were just bringing them along, probably because schools are out this week due to the Eid. I was surprised not to find more nannies or maids in tow, actually. I wonder why that is.

After having purchased a few pajamas, we walked over to the Megastore Building. The toy section was in the basement, and it was quite a feat to get down there with the stroller, but we made it. It was the most expensive toy store I’ve been in here in Beirut so far, but the selection was also larger. I even found pegs for peg art, which I’ve been searching high and low for, since this would be perfect for Abraham to do while we’re doing our school work around the table. The peg art boards were sold out however, though the shop holder told me they would be getting more before Christmas. All the Lego was double the price anywhere else. They had some really cool things though, and I’ll go back there for some Christmas shopping closer to the holidays for sure. All we got for now was a little bucket of Play-Dough for Abraham, and on the top floor August picked out a movie that I way over-paid for, although it was nothing compared to what the boys really wanted; the complete collection of Harry Potter movies, and all the Star Wars movies. I myself eyed the complete seasons of the Wire, which I’ve heard is great, as well as 30 Rock, but there was no way I was going to spend that kind of money.

Noticeable was that none of the mothers and children we had seen just a block away in the clothing stores were in the toy store. It was just us.

Our walk home was a bit unpleasant; Abraham wanted to play with his Play-Dough in the stroller, but since this meant it would all be lost on the ground on our way home, I had to pack it away, and he screamed (for a good solid 15 minutes) himself, hysterical, to sleep. I had thought we might take a look at the TSC signature store (which was also in the Souks), to find out what that is, but it would have to wait. Finally home, Abraham woke up happy, and the boys were excited to wear their new pajamas.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Another dinner from the new cook book

Tonight we made another recipe from the new cook book, and it was probably the best one so far: Lebanese Chicken and Apple Curry. What was so Lebanese about it, we couldn’t figure out (is curry a typical Lebanese thing? Or apples?), but nonetheless, it was amazingly tasty! In fact, everyone was so hungry and excited when it got on the table, along with the pita bread and fresh mint leaves, that I didn’t get a chance to take a picture. Tomorrow, Thai Prawn with glass noodles.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sunday night dinner

For our anniversary this year I gave Courtney a cook book, but since he doesn't have time to cook for the moment, I've been using it - to everyone's delight. Every day this week, I’ve been making something new. Tonight I made an extra effort and chose a couple of recipes: Vietnamese Beef Pho (which is like a noodle and beef spicy soup), Quail Eggs with Masala-Spiced Sea Salt, and Cumin-Spiced Moroccan Carrot Salad (which was really easy and surprisingly tasty!), all served with Spring Rolls with Chili Sauce (which I bought freshly made at Idriss). It was awesome! Abraham had four (4!) quail eggs!


Friday, November 12, 2010

Ice cream in Beirut

In Cairo, the only ice cream we ever found that wasn't refrozen several times and way overpriced was Nestle ice cream at Carrefour. Since Carrefour was a good 20 min. taxi ride away though, we a) didn't get it very often, and b) always had to refreeze it ourselves when we got home.

Here, we've discovered you can buy decent ice cream at the grocery store across the store. They even have Haagen-Dasz that has not been refrozen, and although a little pricey, it's, well, it's an option.

The other night we got Chocolate Chip Mint ice cream, and Chocolate ice cream for dessert, and Abraham really liked the chocolate. In this picture he's asking for "moh."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Midweek reflections - towards Mid-November 2010

…on work
My husband, the Professor, is literally working night and day for the moment. A teacher and a department colleague by day, an author by night, and a travelling conference speaker in between (although there really isn’t any time in between right now), he has no time at all for family, household or even sports. He’s not getting enough sleep either. I am left to manage everything: the boys and their schooling and activities, all our meals, all the cleaning, cooking, washing, laundry, you name it. I don’t even have a tennis partner. It’s an unsustainable situation; we’re all getting really, really tired and I find it absolutely unbearable at times. I constantly have to remind myself that it is only for another month, and it’s really going to give us a huge push forward. “Come mid-December and we can relax. Come mid December, and we’ll relax.” Deep breath.
…towards an education
As August finished Spelling Workout E this week, and since the next book, Spelling Workout F, is supposed to be for sixth graders, I decided to hold him back a bit in the spelling department and focus on perfecting his writing instead. It has always been hard to get him to write. When he does, he doesn’t do it half bad, but he has such trouble coming up with ideas, and he really, really doesn’t like the actual physical work involved. “Do I HAVE TO write a final draft? Can’t we just pretend that all these insertions, corrections and edits ARE the final draft? We know exactly what it will look like now anyways! Pleeeease, mama?” I am determined to get August to where he will not make these kinds of complaints or requests any more, and now is as good as a time as any. I’ve designed a curriculum and set out a method. Let’s all hope it works!
…on the food we eat in Lebanon
Ever since that horrible food poisoning week earlier this fall, we have practically been eating all our meals at home. A couple of times we got take out Chinese from Chopsticks, and a couple of times we ordered pizza (Dominoes – there’s no Papa John’s here L), but that’s about it. For the rest, we’ve [or I guess it’s just I have] done weekly menus with a big shopping, and our five major meals - breakfast, snack (usually fruit), lunch, snack, and dinner - take place around our dinner table. It’s a lot of work, but at least I know we’re eating well, we run a much smaller risk of getting sick, and we can eat food that we know is good and that we like. I let the boys choose one meal every week. Not only do they feel like they have a say, but it also helps me come up with things to cook.
…on our home
Our home is perpetually messy! I live with four males that have no sense whatsoever of order or tidiness, and I can make all the chore lists, threats, pleads, and cleaning sessions I want; they just don’t think the way I do about leaving socks on the floor, cups on the coffee table, empty toilet paper rolls in the bathroom, toys and books EVERYWHERE, or shoes in the middle of the hallway. With all these meals, and with our family spending so much time in our apartment, you can thus imagine that there is a lot of cleaning that is constantly required. Today I ran into one of the owners of our building, who also is one of our upstairs neighbors, a very friendly lady, and she said she knew of someone who can come by and clean our apartment once a week. What a help this would be! I hope it works out (I will find out next week).
…on the upcoming holiday
Our first Eid Al Adha in Egypt was amazing, in that I studied and discovered a lot about [Christianity and] Islam that I actually didn’t know before; things that make these religions very different - and not so different. I found the Muslim community I lived in encouraging, in that people really worship, and encourage worship in the society, even if it’s not to Allah. Religion is an important part of everyone’s lives, and this feast especially, which is a celebration of faith, was a demonstration of this. I am very glad I got to experience it, and our decision to name our son who was born in Egypt, Abraham, was certainly influenced by this inspiring holiday. A lot of people complain about the killings, the blood and stench, but these things don’t really bother me. I can think of several equally gross things elsewhere.
This year I’m looking forward to the experience of Eid Al Adha in Lebanon, and I’m excited to see if it’s anything like in Egypt.
…on the future
Today we – the boys and I - walked over to Mothercare and bought a couple of no-spill cups for Abraham. We made a big deal out of it so that he would get excited, and I think it worked. My idea is to get him to seek out his cup (containing milk or vitamin juice) whenever he gets thirsty or snacky, instead of tugging on my shirt and asking for “nam-nam.” Am I weaning him? Not really. Just encouraging alternatives, now that he is getting older, and imagining a future where I don’t have to buy my underwear in the maternity/nursing section.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Not a soloist, that's for sure!

I don’t get out much without the boys. Since Prof. Husband works pretty much all the time right now, and we don’t have a nanny and haven’t found a baby sitter yet, I just can’t. I have one night a week however, that is only mine (or at least for a couple of hours), and what I do is, I sing. I joined a choir one of our first weeks here. It’s a big choir, and the director is awesome. I get to meet people I wouldn’t usually ever talk to, I get to sing, use my brain, and not nurse, or dress, or cook, or clean for a while.

I love singing. Ever since I was little I’ve sung in a choir, joined groups, or done solos at school. I don’t have an amazing, breathtaking voice, but I have a strong, solid voice with a nice vibrato, and I’m really good at finding – and keeping – a pitch and a count. This makes me a great choir member, and I’m used to being put in whatever section needs help or a push. When this choir director heard me sing, he decided I would sing with the alto section this year. I was happy, because I like the alto section; it’s a little more challenging that the soprano section, which usually sings the melody.

For our Christmas concert this year we are doing a couple of pieces that require solos, and today, whoever wanted to try, was allowed to sing the solo part of their choice. I signed up for a gospel solo, which I had been trying out for at home. When I heard the others sing before me, I thought I had a pretty fair chance at getting the part, however as I stepped up to sing, I got so incredibly, acutely nervous, that I choked up – I mean really; I couldn’t hold a note – and completely and utterly blew it. I’m trying not to think about how awful it must have sounded, but I know it was bad enough. It didn’t come out the way it had at home at all. I’m disappointed. It would have been so much fun.

Why do I suddenly get nervous like that? I used not to. I was the talkative, forward, open and fearless girl. What happened? Most importantly, how can I work on it?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Maybe I miss television a little bit...

When we chose not to take certain things with us to Lebanon, I didn't expect we would miss our television, mainly because I thought if there was a show we really wanted to watch, we could do it online. Our internet connection here however, does not allow us to watch anything. If we stay up really, really late, Courtney & I will manage to get through an episode of Grey's Anatomy or House. What I miss the most though, is being able to turn on Mythbusters or Survivor Man, or even Dirty Jobs, for the boys while making dinner. These are shows that they love, and shows that are not bad, either. I asked the boys yesterday what they miss from the days we had a television, and these are the shows they mentioned, and how they miss being able to watch them with daddy. William also mentioned Suite Life on Deck, which I find cute. (I'm glad Ben Ten didn't come up, or one of those other cartoons.) All in all, I think we're doing fine without a TV - obviously, somehow I manage to make dinner every day without it! (Although I'm seriously looking into ordering some DVDs of these shows for Christmas for the boys.)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Summer days; Pumpkin pie and Christmas music

The sun is shining bright from a sky that is intensely blue. It’s warm outside, almost hot, between 80 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. If I listen carefully I can hear the sea, the waves rolling, just a mile away from my home. We will go down soon for a Sunday walk along the Cornishe (waterfront). It feels like eternal summer by the Mediterranean Sea; vacation, flip flops, the strong, sweet smell of sunscreen and salt, sunglasses, light dresses, stop for a drink, people out and about, enjoying the heat from the happy sun on a leisure Sunday. Except, at the boys’ request, because we’re actually not far now - 'tis the season! - Christmas music is blaring out from speakers in our living room; voices singing about Christmas cheer, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, snow, and stars on a dark winter night. There's a scent of pumpkin pie - the smell of late fall and holidays - coming from our kitchen. Would you believe me if I said that I’m having a bit of trouble associating?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

My favorite morning of the week

Although we are still looking for a way to integrate outdoor and/or sports activities into our everyday routine, we have at least managed to turn Saturday mornings into our default mega sports time. The whole family eats a big breakfast with eggs and whole wheat grain (cereal, porridge, or muesli) and then heads over to campus for an hour and a half of Taekwondo (the older boys), tennis (the Husband and I), general ball play (Abraham), followed by an hour of swimming class (the older boys), an hour on the treadmill (I), and a bit of ‘toddler and otherwise busy father’ one-on-one (Husband and Abraham). No matter what else we have planned or not planned for the weekend, I love everything about our Saturday mornings: not only do we get plenty of exercise and spend time together doing something fun, but strolling across campus is a treat since it’s relatively quiet, and as always, beautiful. (The view of the blue Mediterranean Sea still takes my breath away!)

Friday, November 5, 2010

Finally Friday!

Today we went to the campus playground after lunch so that the boys could play with their friends, and then the boys finished their (schoolwork) math when we got home, while I made dinner. I love Friday afternoons; as soon as the boys finish for the week, they let out a shriek of joy and pride, “Done!!” Their reward is immediate: all-you-can-handle-screen-time until bed time!

I remember when I was young and going to school, that Friday afternoons where nice, but to see the boys work extra hard on Fridays to finish early, is truly a blessing. They get such a satisfaction out of it.

Saturday mornings are busy, with Taekwondo immediately followed by swimming, all the while Courtney and I play tennis (with Abraham), still, Friday marks the end of the work week, and the boys’ contentment makes it all the more special.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Creating a daily routine in a new place...

I’ve been wanting to get a routine going that involves visiting the campus sports area and/or the playground ever day, but it’s hard. I keep thinking, “tomorrow will work,” but then something comes up and it doesn’t. It’s not that there isn’t enough time on an average day, I just haven’t figured out how to organize everything yet. On the days we have French (Tue-Thu), our schoolwork takes longer and we usually don’t finish until it’s almost time for me to start dinner, and so it’s too late to go. On Wednesdays I have choir, and there’s just not enough time for me to go to campus with the boys between school and that to make dinner, feed everyone, clean up, and get ready. This leaves us Mondays and Wednesdays, which are days I usually need for extra things, like grocery shopping, extra projects, or on Fridays I’m just too tired to go anywhere, especially knowing that Saturday mornings are intensive sports days. These are all excuses, I know, and I’m confident that I will be able to rearrange things to fit in exercise, but at this moment, I’m in a bit of a limbo. Sigh.

Our carved pumpkin, Halloween 2010

I can't explain exactly how, but in some way or another, I think this pumpkin looks like Will Ferrell. What is it? Do you see it?



Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Midweek reflections - Beginning of November 2010

…on the weather
I’ve actually grabbed my (very light cotton) sweater on my way out of the house a couple of times, although I have yet to end up wearing it. It’s still too hot in Beirut for it to be cold, but too cold for it to be hot. Makes sense, right? Because it gets hot inside, we keep turning the A/C on, but then we have to turn it off because it gets too cold. It may sound frustrating, but I like it. It’s perfect.
…on the city
I was very much looking forward to venturing out of the city this weekend on a hike with the university faculty services, but then we found out it was only for adults, and obviously we can’t leave the kids at home. I was so disappointed now I’m looking into renting a car for a day or so to find the cedars by myself. I’d love to see some leaves this time of the year, and it would be nice to get out of town.
At the same time; I went to a lunch yesterday at the Movenpick hotel, and I couldn’t help but continuously commenting on how pretty the view was. From my seat by the window I could see the sea and the southern parts of Beirut with the large sandy beach in the front, and it was simply stunning. It is a beautiful city.
…on the people
The boys spent Halloween with friends, and I’m so happy to see they are more confident in their social relationships than when we arrived in Beirut in September. The first time we went to the playground after we first got here, they hung around me like they were physically attached to me, and didn’t even dare to say “hi” to the other kids. If you know my boys, you’ll agree that this is not like them at all. (It seems that four months of traveling with only immediate family can make any otherwise very social boy shy.) Now they’re back to their old selves though, and I’m relieved!
…on our home
Our Halloween decorations were very sparse but made our new apartment feel a little more like home. Today William and I picked up a pumpkin as well that I will let the boys carve before I cook it to make mashed pumpkin for Thanksgiving pie. As there is no canned pumpkin here either, I will continue doing what I’ve done every year for the past oh, ten - or so - years; bake a pumpkin, puree it, and then freeze batches of 1 ½ cups (which is what my Fanny Farmer’s pumpkin pie recipe calls for).
…on family
Courtney will be traveling at the end of this month, and since I have some obligations, by then I will have to have found a helper or a baby sitter that we can employ. These are times that I really miss having our extended family around. I’m sure there are perfectly great baby sitters out there, but really, grandma or uncle Michael would just have been the best. I read my childhood friends’ posts on Facebook where they describe romantic get-aways with their husbands while their kids spend the weekend at Grandma’s, and I feel really sorry that we are not close to our family. I know, I know, we are doing all these amazing things, bla, bla, bla, but sometimes, you know, I’m allowed to wonder why we’ve made it so hard for ourselves.
…on education
Let me just say this: the laser printer is the best invention ever! Timetables practice sheets? Print! Halloween theme pages? Print! Spelling tests? Print! Kids’ chore charts in extra large fonts? Print! A never-ending stream of Sesame Street coloring pages to keep the toddler happy while I explain the concept of Energy to the older boys? PRINT! Add the laminator, and our homeschool has all the resources a mother could ask for.
People that don’t homeschool but that are interested in finding out how I do it, often comment after I’ve explained “That sounds like SO MUCH WORK!” and well, yes, there’s research and thought process and material selection involved, but you know what? I think dealing with lunch boxes, gym clothes, silly-band trades during recess, principal’s office visits, report cards, parent volunteering, PTA meetings, kids left out, and all the other issues - not to mention getting up in the wee hours of the morning to take your tired child to school in any weather every day - sounds like a lot of work.
…on the past
Courtney is doing very well right now with a book coming out, another book contract on the way, and a third just starting up, articles published, his new job, and conference invitations. I am so happy for him for us, realizing that what we are enjoying at this moment is the result of ten years of very hard work. When we first met we were poor students; it’s a lot of work studying when you don’t have money for food. Then I got a nice job and Courtney could go through to graduate school. He studied hard and I worked hard to build my career. Then I got pregnant once and then again, and Courtney had to go through graduate school AND work, while I worked part time. Having kids while working, studying, and living away from family is hard!
Courtney has worked and worked and worked so hard on his research over these past few years, while I have worked just as hard taking care of everything else, and I mean *everything*. The funny thing is that while we were in the middle of it all, we didn’t think our life was exceptionally hard; we lead such a happy life. And now I’m happy we’re able to look back and enjoy the harvest!
…on the future
Courtney is traveling to Turkey this month and Belgium at the beginning of next month, and I’m worried about finding a competent and reliable helper/baby sitter. I’m actually thinking about buying a plane ticket for my mom to come for a couple of weeks, and not get a baby sitter. It’s not a permanent solution – we’ll need a sitter at some other point in the future too – but it would be so great. Can you tell I miss my family?
At the same time, while I’m dreading Courtney’s trips, I’m also looking forward to them, because once he’s back, all deadlines for this year will have been reached (for now at least) and we finally –after years really! – get a bit of a breather.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween in Beirut, 2010

We found out from other families that there isn’t really any organized trick or treating here. Apparently there was a few years back around the faculty housing apartments, but it got so out of hand that now the guards don’t allow people to do it. So instead of trick or treating, we made it a special day for the boys. We had a fun Halloween lunch. I made busted eyeballs (eggs) and ghost toast, among other things. While we were having lunch we noticed two hearses pull up in the alley behind our house by the hospital, and two coffins were brought out and placed in the cars, that soon after left again. The boys watched, interested, bewildered, and wondered if it was a Halloween stunt; although it most certainly was not, it was definitely a seasonal coincidence.

In the afternoon we took the boys to the Michel El Murr stadium to play laser tag with their friends. For 25,000LL per boy per hour, they got to wear glow-in-the-dark laser gear with a laser gun, divide into teams, and run around in a dark room with padded walls and fight battles, shooting at each other (I know; my boys thought they had died and gone to boy-heaven!). When an orange player hit a green player, it registered on the score keeping board on the wall. It was nicely organized, and there was always a guy on the room with the kids to help them figure out the game. As you can imagine, my boys had an absolute blast! When we got home they ate the candy I had got them while watching “A Nightmare Before Christmas,” and we had dinner and cake. It wasn’t your regular hallows eve, but everyone had a good day.

Tomorrow, All Saints Day, we will go through our books on Saints, as well as remember our passed loved ones. If we were in Sweden we would go to the cemetery and put candles out on my father’s and grandparents’ graves. I always enjoyed it when I was little – in the evening the cemetery would look like an ocean of lit candles, flickering in the dark, crisp cold fall night, representing all the dead and their souls, ascended. Here in Beirut, far away, we’ll light a candle after dinner, and send a special thought.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Making friends in a new place; on friendships in general

This afternoon I went to a new friend’s house with the boys. My friend has four boys in the approximate age range of my boys, and they’ve played together at the playground or at sports thus far. This was the first time we went to their house though, and my boys were really excited about the visit. As was I. My friend is one of the people I’ve met at the playground who has been helpful and kind, and who seems to have similar ideas about child care; nursing, etc. and so I’ve been looking forward to talking to her beyond the usual playground chit-chat. It has been a while since I spent time with a friend – any friend, really - and it was great just to hang out with someone. I love my husband, we’re best friends, but I find female friends important as well, and these past months have been absolutely and completely female-friendless. It was a great afternoon, and the boys and I, all, had a good time.

When I think about friendships, I someimes envy the people I went to school with who stayed in our hometown. My big brother for example, stayed, married his high school sweetheart, and they went on to have kids, build a house, work a career, start a business – everything – along with their childhood friends who also stayed. Now their kids are grown, have left home, and they do things together again as good old friends. My brother’s best friend at the age of almost 50 is one of his best friends from school. That’s a long, lasting friendship.

I have good friends from school, friends that I grew up with that I stay in touch with, but we live thousands of miles apart, and I only see most of them every so many years. When we meet up, it’s like time never passed; there’s no awkward catching up. We just continue as great friends regardless that we live separate lives on separate ends of the globe. But that’s the thing though; we don’t get those everyday moments together. These are good friends for life, but you need something else as well; you need friends to share your everyday life with.

As a foreigner in a community, I find, you can form very close friendships with people over a shorter time, because you share a certain setting or experience, and you end up spending a lot of time together. There has to be a certain chemistry too, of course, but these are major factors. Throughout our years in Belgium, because we were so close to other couples in our situation (as graduate students in child bearing years, to put it bluntly), and because everyone’s families were so far away, we spent every holiday, occasion, pregnancy, birth, birthday, party, illness, good day, bad day - through sickness and sin - together, and we’re tied together for life by this certain bond. These are really close friends, and the knowledge that even though we are very far apart, we’re living the same, almost parallel, life, keeps up close, always. I miss these friends, scattered across the globe, every day.

So here we are in a new country, and we’re trying to make new friends; find people that we can share our everyday life with. It’s hard. Maybe because I’m older, or because we know by experience that it’s hard to find good friends. It’s harder here than in Cairo because there are no social set-ups like the ones we went through there, where the faculty services basically acted match makers. Here, because of the lack of faculty housing, we also live separated from other faculty families, and it seems like most everyone is settled. It takes time, and effort, emotional investments, and it’s hard work. Today though, I made progress, and it felt good. To friendship!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Midweek reflections - October 2010

…on the weather (always my favorite subject!)
It has cooled down a bit since last week, although it’s still definitely shorts & t-shirt weather, as well as humid. Courtney doesn’t come home from work drenched in sweat any more though. I keep wondering how cold it will get in the winter. When we lived in Cairo our neighbors kept telling us “Oh, you just wait! It will get COLD!!” and then it never did. (Only later did we realize that they were from California, and probably had a different perception of what signifies cold weather.) Here I’ve noticed they’re selling winter coats at H&M, and boots, hats, mitts and scarves in the stores, which seems to indicate that it will get cold. I guess I’m about to find out.
…on the city
I’ve been venturing out a bit more with the kids. If I want to go into any stores I’ve learned not to bring the stroller. All grocery stores have several floors without a lift, and in most other stores there’s simply not enough room for a stroller. Since we’re close to most stores though, it’s all right for Abraham to walk. The sidewalks are good (enough), and if we’re going to campus, we’ll take the stroller. We’ve discovered that we can walk through the Medical Center and avoid the busy traffic on Souraty street. Campus makes for a nice green haven, and the boys love going there.
…on the people
I’m still trying to figure out the Lebanese people. Some are so friendly and generous, but then we run into others, such as the taxi driver the other day, who thinks it’s perfectly all right to steal from us. The other day Courtney went to buy roasted chestnuts from the man on the corner, having watched many a Lebanese men and women do it before, and had estimated the price from having watched several prior transactions. The man gave Courtney a small bag with obviously some of his less nice chestnuts, and asked for an amount that tripled that of the regular. And it wasn’t that playful beginning-price you would start off with in Cairo at the souk (to bargain around); it was obviously what the man thought Courtney should pay. Why did he think that it was OK for him to rip Courtney off? Honesty was such an important feature in the Muslim society in Cairo (I'm not saying Christians are thieves, but there's something to notice in Egypt; be it terror or whatever that keeps crime away); although everyone enjoyed a long and sometimes feisty argument over a price, there was never a feeling of dishonesty or mistrust. Is it the class system? Is there a difference between the religious groups? Is it cultural?
…on our home
Because our house is so big it’s hard to keep clean. By the time I’ve managed to get through the entire house tidying, cleaning the floors, or finishing the laundry, I have to start all over again. I’ve been thinking about making daily chore lists, but Courtney is so busy right now with finishing his book, working on his classes, and preparing for his trips this fall, that I don’t want to burden his mind any further. I know he wants to help, but the way his brain works, even when we have ‘cleaning time’ he ends up following me around the house talking, while I work. The boys will work under direct threat or with an extraordinary and instant reward awaiting them. People keep telling me to get a maid, but we have this idea of privacy that is not quite compatible with a stranger spending hours on end in our home. I’m open to solutions!
…on family
We’ve been spending a lot of time together since, well, pretty much since the beginning of the summer, and with very few friends right now, we end up spending practically all our time together, doing whatever needs or wants to be done as a family; grocery shopping, errands, playing, going to the movies, sports, etc. Luckily it hasn’t worn us out, and the boys still play really well together (as do Courtney and I, ha, ha). We miss our extended family though, of course.
…towards an education
The boys started learning French this week with a real, native speaker tutor. I am excited to have them learn something well without having to be the only one there to teach them. Not that I don’t enjoy teaching them other things – I love homeschooling - but after Math, English, Science, Music, Art, History, Geography, Latin and everything else we do that has to be done, I’m glad that someone else, competent, is able to inspire the boys for a while.
…on the past
We miss our friends and family, probably more now that the holidays are approaching; we think of parties we threw or went to in the past, and the yearly traditions we developed first in Belgium, and then in Egypt. When moving to a new country I find we always have to create new traditions and rituals, and for some reason this does not quite seem to compute with the idea of a holiday; isn’t it supposed to be ALL about friends, family, and tradition? Well; no, I’ve concluded, because we always find the spirit to create new customs with different people and strange foods in a new place, regardless, and I’m confident we will this time around as well. Still, I always get a little sentimental this time of the year: I loved the Halloween festival at CAC in Cairo and I’m sad we won’t be there this year. I remember our last Thanksgiving in Leuven so well; we had dinner with our good friends, as every Thanksgiving for the past five or so years. We toasted to the words “This is probably our last Thanksgiving together here in Leuven,” knowing that, as our studies were coming to an end, we were all getting ready to move on, away from Belgium. I will always think back with joy at Sinterklaas celebrations at Sancta Maria and in Alma. I wish I could visit the Kerstmarkt in Leuven, and there’s nothing more awesome than standing in a dark, open, moon-lit, crisp freezing, snow covered field in the middle of nowhere somewhere in Sweden, nostrils freezing, and hear the faint ringing of church bells in the distance, along with fireworks, marking the beginning of a New Year. Should old acquaintance be forgot? Oh dear, I had better stop here.
…on the future
On the same note, we’re excited to celebrate the upcoming holidays for the first time in our new home country. We don’t know yet what we will do this weekend, but hopefully we can get the boys together with other children and do something fun. We decorated our house today, and Abraham enjoyed playing with all the little “mon-yuh” [monsters] the boys put out. Whatever we do we’ll still dress up. The boys have been more excited to come up with a costume for Abraham this year than for themselves. At first they seemed to assume that he would be a skeleton again this year as last, but since I pointed out that he has way grown out of that baby suit, they’ve been plotting Abraham’s costume. Especially the idea of his little body wrapped in a robe, topped off with a Yoda mask, light saber in hand, is really amusing to them. We’ll see what we can find.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

We found a good bookstore in Hamra

On Monday I took the boys to the bookstore August got a gift certificate for on his birthday from one of his friends. It’s called Antoine and is not far from our house, on Hamra Street. It’s a nice, big bookstore, with lots of schoolbooks. August picked out a few Jack & Annie books (The Magic Treehouse) and the rest of us looked around. Because Abraham has not been well we couldn’t stay as long as I might have wanted, but it was still nice to explore the city a little and find such a treasure. We’ll definitely be back again!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Going to the movies in Beirut

Today we went to the movies for the first time in Beirut. We have been planning it for a while, since we live just a few minute’s walk from a movie theater. Today though, it turned out the movie we had planned to see didn’t play at “our” movie theater, so we took a taxi to Sodeco Square, about a ten minute drive from our house. The taxi driver who took us there though took *the long* way (meaning, he drove way out of the way to get there), obviously in an attempt to rip us off, and when we finally got there, he wanted $10 for the ride, which would cost anyone else not-so-fair-skinned half that price. This is not the first time we’ve been discriminated against because of our skin color here, and it’s really annoying. Anywhere in the world, done to anyone.

We got our tickets (LL14000/person) and looked around the mini-mall that surrounds the movie theater, which seemed to be catered to kids; cafés serving marshmallow cakes, candy shops, and toy stores. We got some candy at a small shop, but then when we got into the actually movie theater regretted it, because they had a perfectly nice concession stand with free refills on popcorn for LL4000.

The theater was small but nice, and the 3-D glasses were nicer than the ones we got in the States. We had great seats right in the middle of the theater. Our movie, Legends of the Guardians, was all right. Just perfect for the boys, who truly enjoyed every moment of it.

On the way home we got a taxi driver who drove us straight home and didn’t try to rip us off. A good ending to a nice outing.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

To you, oh annoying driver, who repeatedly asked me "taxi? taxi?!" yesterday

La-a shukran!! No, I DON’T need a taxi right now, thanks. In fact, your car isn’t really a taxi, is it? It doesn’t have an official plate or a sign on the roof. And curiously, I’m not considering getting into a random car with a strange, large man driving just today, thank you. I’m sorry but I have this odd idea that it might not be a good thing to do. In addition, as you might have noticed if you had not been so busy honking at me over and over again, I am getting my badge out as I am five yards from the AUB gate, and about to enter. This is why I was waiting for you to pass so that I could get across the street and onto campus. Yes, when you slowed down, honking loudly, blocking my way to ask me if I wanted a taxi. It was obvious that I was looking to cross the street, yet there you were. So thanks, but no thanks.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

On the mistakes you make…

…when you are not paying attention in a new country.

We had just got back from our weekly, big grocery shopping at TSC when I realized we had no milk, and that I had completely forgotten to buy milk at TSC. So I took a boy with me, I forgot which one, and ran over to Idriss. Just as we got there, they closed and locked the last gate. Now what? We are a family that cannot go without milk for more than a few hours. I asked the guys that were closing up, and they told me there was a night shop just a block away. There, I didn’t see any milk however. I interrupted the cashier who was involved in a very engaging and long phone conversation, to ask for milk – a word I know very well in Arabic - and he, annoyed, got four little bottle out for me. Not quite what I was looking for, but it would have to do for now. All the while, the boy I had brought is continuously asking for this or that treat, and the baby that I was carrying and hadn’t even realized I was carrying until he started trying to get into anything within reach at the tiny night shop, started whining. So I grabbed the bottles and headed home.

While putting the bottles in the fridge, I opened one and had a swig. Eeeeuuuuhh! “That’s not milk!” I announced. Goodness. How could I not have noticed?

Turns out I had got four bottles of that disgusting yogurt drink the Lebanese drink continuously throughout the day. It tastes sort of like Activia only it’s salty (Why?!). Yuck!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Labels - Funny English in Lebanon #2

I got these labels for spice jars that I bought at the "dollar store" here in Hamra. Since most spices come in plastic bags and will get all over your spice cabinet while you're looking through them, I bought little jars and labels.

Looking more closely at the labels today; I was sniffing the spices and trying to decided what to write on the label, I noticed some interesting things. What exactly is a "Glutinous Label?" Are they referring to gluten? Or have they misspelled the word "gluttonous?"

Moreover, "may stick on anything at will" certainly sounds like a warning to me. I'm glad they put that on there, prompting me to be more cautious while handling the labels.

Courtney made a profane joke about the "the goods need cleaning" part.

Under the heading "Household utensil..." the picture looks to be based on a Miro or Picasso when it comes to perspective.

Lastly, notice the heading involving hospital equipment. I'm glad they found a use for a semi-colon somewhere in the middle there, without spaces or anything. It's really what had me sold.

Settling in is a lot of work!

Time is passing by so quickly this fall. Between trying to process all the new impressions, and everything else that comes with moving to a completely new place, we’ve dealt with bad tummies for a while now. It seems to go up and down, although over this past week, most everyone has got better. Hopefully this is the last of it.

I remember having this very same feeling that I have now when we first moved to Egypt three years ago. While trying to get into everything from sports activities, schoolwork, and establishing a routine, to making friends and finding a good grocery store, we were continuously hit by diversions, like birthday parties, Halloween, Thanksgiving, sicknesses, trips, any other special occasion, etc. I felt like our finding our way in our new country was disrupted over and over again, and I was frustrated. Yet in the end, what happened of course was that all those challenges I was faced with, like trying to find a good pharmacy, an understanding, English-speaking doctor, even turkey in a strange country, are what helped me get completely settled. Knowing this now, I’m not as stressed out as I was then, although it doesn’t lessen the actual work. I still have to find a place to get a turkey. I’m still looking for a good toy store, a pork vendor, a place to buy Christmas ornaments, and a good way to get our gym time in. I’m also still looking for a good baby sitter, and it’s getting a bit pressing now that Courtney has E-tickets printed out for his two trips this fall. Do you know anyone?

The things that we need

When we moved from Cairo to Beirut we had to make some hard decisions on what to take and what to leave behind. Firstly, we didn’t have a very large shipping allowance, and paying extra to ship things was just out of the question. Secondly, Lebanon, as Egypt, has very strict customs regulations, and as much as I wanted to bring my vacuum cleaner, beaters, my food processor, and our DVD player, it was simply not possible.

Packing was difficult. Giving things away was, at least, rewarding. In the end, it all went fairly well. This post is not about our move though; it’s about things.

What is interesting when you are forced to pick and choose among things you keep in your household is that it makes you decide what you really need, or what you cannot live without. Some things that we got rid of we knew we would want to – and just as important; would be able to - buy as soon as we got here; like an iron, beaters, pots and pans, towels, plates, cups, glasses, kitchen utensils, etc. Some things we made sure to bring with us because we knew from experience or suspected they might be hard to find, like a Swedish potato peeler, a ricer, our amazing bottle opener, measuring cups, and our water pick, etc. Some things we decided we would buy here because they make our lives so much easier and more effective, like a dryer and a microwave oven. We actually didn’t have a microwave oven in Cairo, because when we got there I didn’t think it would be necessary, and then when I started realizing that we would do better with one, we were closer to leaving than coming, and I didn’t want to spend the money. Here in Beirut I bought one within our first few days, and it is totally worth the money. We eat a lot more leftovers, saving lots of money on food, and cooking is easier and involves fewer dishes, which saves time. Many people think a dryer is unnecessary, but there’s no way I am hanging up 15 pairs of little boys’ underwear, 21 or more sets of socks, 22-30 pairs of pants or shorts, and closer to 30 boys’ shirts every week (that’s all on top of Courtney’s and my clothes), so we bought a dryer within our first week. It has been running ever since. We also bought a coffee maker. Only Courtney drinks coffee, so in Egypt he didn’t feel justified to spend money on an expensive machine. After three years of using the French press however, he put down his foot; brewed coffee is just so much better. SO we got him a coffee pot. It too, has been running ever since.

What was left behind? Our huge television; we can definitely live well without it. A lot of boys’ clothes and toys; some I would have liked to keep for Abraham, like the boys’ bikes, but I know it will be a while before he’ll want to get on a bike, and wherever we live then, I’m sure we can get a new bike. We left our large set of IVAR shelves. It had been with me since I left home for college in the beginning of the 90’s, and when we moved to Cairo I simply couldn’t part with it. For our move to Beirut, however, we decided we could use the kilos on something better. Surely they much have cheap bookshelves in Beirut! Ha! Boy, were we wrong! We wish we had kept that one!

What would you bring with you? What can you not live without?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Mosquitoes in Beirut?

Since it started cooling down a bit, we’ve started using our large balcony a bit more. Last night Courtney sat out there for his Skype call with a colleague in the US. They are working on a book together, and as the deadline is drawing near, they need to go through all the edits. Not only is it nice to be able to sit outside on a cool late-summer night, but also, connecting through the university network, our internet reception is optimal out there.

At first I was skeptical about spending our evenings outside on the balcony, because I can’t stand mosquitoes. I am very sensitive, and get giant bites that itch terribly for months. Even after I've scratched so much and so hard they've turned into open wounds, then scabs, then scars, and finally healed completely; even then, they will occasionally itch. But then, over these past few days I’ve noticed; there are no mosquitoes. How is that possible? We’re right by the sea. Do they spray the city? I wonder, and will have to investigate. Why are there no mosquitoes in Hamra?

August's birthday cake; made by two young boys

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Celebrating our first birthday in Beirut

Today was our oldest son’s birthday. He turned nine years old. Nine?! It's strange to think that it was nine years ago Dr. Schroyens pulled a little cone shaped head out of my body, changing our life forever.

We got a couple of gifts for our boy in the US this summer before we came to Lebanon, and I’m glad, because not having explored the shopping possibilities here yet, I wouldn’t really have known where to go. He was very happy with what he got: Bionicles, Pokemon, and Bakugan. I have a feeling we’re starting to move out of the toy phase, but for this year, he was still easy to satisfy. I wonder what comes next.

To celebrate, we had invited some of his new friends here in Beirut. For a couple of hours this evening, our house was filled with boys; hamburger eating, cake eating, Nerf gun shooting, wrestling, screaming and yelling boys. They all had a blast. I chatted with the moms, and it was nice to finally have someone over at our new house.

Next major event, lurking around the corner: Halloween. I wonder if or how it is celebrated here in Beirut.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

...and thus commenceth our common life in Beirut.

We spent our first week in Beirut waiting to find and then move into our own apartment. Then we spent another almost two weeks waiting to get our shipment. The day after it arrived, we all got food poisoning, and so we spent this past week recovering, while waiting for our bookshelves, and trying to sort out the house. I feel like our first month here in Beirut was spent in limbo; we waited at the mercy of some uncontrollable force, unable to make plans or take charge.
Tonight our house is tidy, most of our books are on shelves, and nobody has thrown up since yesterday. Our cabinets and fridge are not full, but contain enough food to last us a few days. We have everything here that we need to start our normal life.
What is that? What kind of life is it that we want to be leading here? I have been reading books, articles, and my favorite blogs to get inspiration; how to organize our time and effort, and what to prioritize. I have thought about our goals and aspiration, and what we need to do to achieve what we want. The professor and I have talked about everything; are continuously discussing what our direction is. It’s difficult, fun, scary, and exciting to think about these things, but very refreshing.
For the boys’ well-being and school matters, our most pressing and one of the most important issues at the moment, I still need to finish last years’ report cards and write out the curricula for this year, but the boys have already started their academic work for this semester, and are doing well. We have been debating the possibility of putting them in school, mainly for economical (homeschooling is straining our budget) and social reasons, but they are thriving so nicely, that we’ll continue with our home education for now. This week the boys will start a couple of new sports activities at the AUB campus, and hopefully with a house that is in order, we can give our family’s social life a push, starting with a small party to celebrate August’s birthday on Tuesday.
As for everything else; I need a little more time before I can write out exactly what it is that we are doing here. I know my list will contain a lot of exercise and outdoor exploration, as well as learning and reading. There are things I want to do, things our family can do, and whatever comes first and we end up doing, we are all excited about our new life here in Beirut.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Finding affordable bookshelves in Hamra

It took a lot of searching, asking around, walking, and discussing to finally find affordable bookshelves for our apartment here in Beirut. We asked our employer’s carpenter, who offered to make us shelves for an astronomical amount. We looked in a few furniture shops where the prices where even higher. Finally, a colleague of the professor told us to go on getforless.com, and there we found the cheapest shelves so far. We could order them online, they were delivered to our home within a week, and we paid after they had been installed. Awesome!