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.