Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Our first beach day of the year

After weeks of waiting, finally this past Saturday the AUB beach was reopened. Since Saturday is our oh-so-busy day of the week, we had to wait until the second opening day to go. We did go down to sneak a peek however, between activities. All the ladders were being put out, the sun chairs, the sun roofs, and the baby pool had been repainted. The boys were so excited.

When Sunday came and we finally had found all our snorkeling sets, water shoes, and swimwear, we almost ran over and hopped into the water. It wasn’t hot like in the Red Sea, but it wasn’t really cold either. I would estimate it somewhere between 20°-24°C, or between 70°-75°F. Abraham was very cautious at first. Last year he was a great baby swimmer, but because children under six years of age are not allowed into the indoor AUB pool, Abraham hasn’t been in one since last fall. He had obviously forgotten how to swim. He waded around holding my hand, commenting on what the older boys were doing. They too were a little cautious at first, but were soon snorkeling around the more shallow part closer to the shore.

There’s no real coral like around the coast of Sinai of course, but still a lot of life around the AUB beach: different types of fish, crabs, hermit crabs, some really funky sea slugs, etc. William enjoyed picking them all up and putting them into Abraham’s bucket to show him and other curious children on the beach. Then Abraham sat on the dock with August while William and I snorkeled around the pier. It was great! (In fact, it was so great, I didn't manage to take one single picture, because amidst all the fun, I totally forgot!)

After a couple of hours we went home; satisfied, tired and very happy. It had been such a great afternoon. As we entered our house and everyone took their clothes off to hit the showers, I realized that in all our joy, I had missed something very essential: sun-block. Everybody's backs were lobster red! What a bad-mama mistake!

Won’t happen again...

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Finding Nemo at the doctor's office

Today we went to get Abraham booster shots (more about that in a different post) and at the doctor’s office there was a huge aquarium in the waiting room. As soon as Abraham saw it, he ran up to it, started tapping the glass with his finger, singing “Twinkle, twinkle little star…!” in a funny voice (not his usual sweet voice). It cracked us up. Not because it’s particularly funny, but because of why he was doing it.

One of Abraham’s favorite movies is FINDING NEMO. He loves it, and has watched it more times than I can count. If you have seen it, then you’ll remember the aquarium Nemo ends up in at the dentist’s clinic in Sydney. You’ll also recall the string music from Shark playing as the mean child – the dentist’s niece - would come visit, and they would all exclaim “Darla!!” because once Darla “wouldn’t stop shaking the bag.” Perhaps you’ll also remember how she would tap the glass really hard and sing “Twinkle, twinkle little star” with a horrible, squeaky, off-key voice.

That’s what he was doing; making a reference to his favorite movie. So funny.

Thursday, May 26, 2011


Yesterday our concierge rang our doorbell, bringing a man in a jumpsuit carrying one of those spray bottles you hold in one hand, with a hose and a nozzle for spraying in the other. Mr. Abdullah, our concierge, speaks very – and I mean VERY - limited English, but made me understand that they were here to look down our trash chute and that it had something to do with tiny bugs. I assumed cockroaches, since this is an apparent problem throughout the building. On the kitchen balcony they started spraying poison down the chute, and then proceeded to start opening the floor drains, which are made of metal and stuck tight. I haven’t seen a lot of cockroaches around our house, only a couple, but every time I’ve opened a drain in any room there has been a cockroach, and especially in the bathrooms. I am therefore very happy that they are stuck; that is obviously where the cockroaches actually live – in the sewer and pipes. I soon realized that the pest fighter’s plan was to spray down every drain in our house. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like cockroaches, but when the guy got ready to start a poison spray fest in my house, I had to protest. With children in the house, it is simply not safe. Now, Abdullah speaks nearly no English and this guy obviously spoke not a word of any other language than Arabic, and a local version at that, and my Arabic is very limited. Especially words like ‘poisonous,’ and ‘toddler’ did not come fast enough. Very soon though they understood that I did not want them to spray poison around our apartment. Either that or my alarming appearance scared them so much that they thought it was better to leave. In any case, they closed the drains they had opened and left. What a relief. Although now I am worried that if they did spray down all the drains in all the rest of the house, our apartment will turn into some kind of cockroach refuge.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Cleaning help in Beirut

I love Tuesday afternoons before dinner, because it’s the only time of the week that our house is decently clean. As poor as we are, we have a cleaning lady come once a week to go over all the floors and bathrooms. We pay her comparatively well, but it’s still cheap enough to be justifiable: $25/day. Before we found her, Meena – turns out she cleans all the other apartments in the building – I did the work, and it’s a good solid six-seven hour job, which is very hard to do when you homeschool and work while trying to run a household and take care of a food-throwing, active toddler. (I can’t remember when I last had time to do anything for a six hour stretch.) So even though we are trying to live a frugal life, we’ve decided that Meena is essential, and so far, we’ve managed to keep her (at this point, she really is the last monthly expense that we maintain bar food and rent). It saves me so much time and work.

She is a Jain-Hindu (look it up – it’s interesting) from Sri Lanka, has lived in Lebanon for a very long time, and has some family here. This is pretty much all I know about her, because she speaks none of the languages I master, or at least I speak non of her languages. I know though that she has a big heart, loves little blond food-throwing toddlers, and that she’s a MASTER cleaner.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Saturday morning...

As usual, Abraham and I walked the older boys to Taekwondo practice this morning, and the weather was so lovely, I couldn't resist taking a couple of pictures.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Homeschool math curriculum - Saxon Math

It took us a few years to get our math curriculum set. Because we never had much money, buying a set curriculum was out of the question when we started homeschooling, but we figured at least the first couple of years, we should be able to manage without one. At first we just taught the boys basic arithmetic such as adding, subtracting, missing addends, etc., as well as all the basic stuff; telling time, naming shapes, turning basic word problems into mathematical problems, measuring height, weight, etc. When they got to where they could do all that, we helped them memorize the timetables, and after that, we started on the more interesting problems, like division, or calculating the area of a triangle or a circle. To make sure we had everything covered, we would get cheaper general grade math books, find sites online (often state education websites) with lists of things that children should know at a certain grade, and then create worksheets accordingly. Although fun and rewarding, this was a lot of work, especially the higher the grade.

Then two summers ago I found a Saxon Math book for fourth grade at the used bookstore in Ft. Wayne, and bought it (because I had heard that Saxon Math was supposed to be good), if nothing else for a reference. This year August has been using it, and we are SOLD. He only has a couple of lessons left, and I have to say we all love it. It is very thorough, which I think is important for math, repetitive, which means nothing will go unnoticed, and the number of lessons is a comfortable 120 lessons, which we easily can cover in one academic year. The only problem is we only have the Student Edition, which is sufficient for August’s learning, but means that – without an answer key – Courtney or myself (mostly I) have to go through August’s work after each lesson and calculate all the problems ourselves to correct it. Now THAT is work, because honestly, fourth grade math is a long time away, and it’s not as easy as first or second grade math. You really have to do the problem. Now with Courtney’s new job we did get some funds for homeschooling and if we were in the US, I would have ordered the entire homeschool kit ages ago, however ordering things to Beirut is difficult and expensive at best, and we just can’t get the material.

After this summer things will be easier because we can order everything we need to Sweden – the fifth grade kit for August, as well as the fourth grade worksheets and answer keys for William, and the fourth and fifth grade assessment kits for both boys. I can’t wait! In the meantime, I’m stuck here calculating the area of a rectangle, and reading about how many pounds of oranges Miguel bought and what they cost. Sigh.

OK, so I went a little crazy…

...and bought 16 packs of bacon at the grocery yesterday. 

For those of you who live in the western world, this might not seem so remarkable, but you have to understand: we’re in the Middle East, and bacon is difficult to get and/or very expensive. TSC, a larger grocery store some blocks from our house, carries – among everything else - alcoholic beverages and some pork products (although no fresh pork – you have to go to City Stars for that). The grocery store a few meters from our house – Idriss – does not have anything like that. So whenever we want beer, wine, gin, ham, hot dogs or bacon, we trudge up the hill with our backpacks and shop at TSC. The alcohol is not very expensive, and there’s usually a special on some kind of ham so that it doesn’t add up to much, but the hot dogs and the bacon are imported (almost $1/slice or hot dog), and hence not something we can buy very often. I can probably count the number of packs of bacon that I have bought since we moved here on one hand.

But we like bacon. So imagine my delight yesterday when I entered TSC and they had a heap of bacon packs at 90% off, because they were about to expire. I said I’d take five. Then I thought, “1000 Lebanese pounds per pack? That’s like $0.75! Goodness. I guess I *could* buy few more.” So I asked for another bunch and ended up with 16 packs.

When I came home, after the initial family joy had settled, I was scolded for not having bought ALL of the bacon packs (there were about as many left as I had got), and today other parts of our family want to go and see if we can get the rest.


Thursday, May 19, 2011

Towards the end of the semester...

The end of the semester is – although still some weeks away - within sight, and the boys are finishing up their regular schoolwork to focus on their end-of-the-year projects: three writing assignments (one fictional story, one argumentative comparison, and one biography), two larger history and geography projects (one on World War Two and one on The Middle East), one smaller (on 9/11 and terrorism), and two science projects (one on light and one on sound, and whatever these subjects encompass, e.g. photography or musical instruments). I find the middle of the spring semester is always a bit slow and difficult, but around this time – about five weeks to go - the boys seem to become more energetic, perhaps because they can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and usually manage to pull through well. I pray this last month will be productive and fun.
I have yet to start giving the boys formal grades, but at the end of the semester we will have a graduation ceremony where the best essays and projects will receive awards, and the boys accept their diplomas. I predict that incidentally, all three boys will receive the same amount of awards, and that their special efforts will be reflected and celebrated.
(I also predict that the teacher will receive a special treat, and that her efforts will be officially recognized over dinner in a restaurant of her choice.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How do our stomachs do in the Middle East?

Yesterday I woke up to the violent sounds of bursting, spraying, gassy diarrhea coming from the boy’s bathroom. The first thought that went through my head was “Whoever it is, I hope he made it and is sitting on the toilet.” Turns out it was August, and he didn’t just have diarrhea, but was also throwing up. He spent pretty much the entire morning on the toilet, and then he came out, got cleaned up, and ate a Lebanese pizza, an apple, and had a soda. After lunch he played with the other boys, and read on the couch, and was… well, fine; back in business.
Over the years that we have lived in the Middle East we have come to accept and even expect that these kinds of episodes are a regular part of life - a nuisance, but nonetheless a recurring feature. Why do we get sick once in a while like this? As with anything, we’ve done extensive research, and the first times it happened, we had it checked out. The thing is though that it could be so many things, and although we do always take extra caution, it’s unavoidable. Unless it’s an epidemic or something that hits the entire family, it doesn’t much matter. It will usually just pass, and as long as we keep hydrated, it will not cause any serious harm. We therefore no longer freak out when it happens. Should someone not get better after a day or two, or even get worse – like when Courtney got Typhoid Fever in Cairo – then we will start to take action, however a night on the toilet or a morning puking here and there are… normal here. Mafiish Mushkela.

AUB Choir and Choral Society Spring concert 2011

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

AUB Choir and Choral Society Spring concert 2011

The choir concert yesterday went well.

We’ve practiced so hard this past week, so when Monday evening finally came around, I was tired – tired of having “Gloria in Excelsis Deo!” stuck in my head all day and night, and tired of quick dinners, leaving the kids and then off to campus every other evening. I love singing, and in a way I enjoyed this intense week of music, but it was also strenuous. Instead of being very nervous, I therefore had almost a sense of relief before the concert.

So yesterday wee had dinner early, then I went over to warm up, and when I got back home we all got dressed and went to a friend’s house where August and Abraham were going to stay. Because Abraham is what he is right now – a lively, happy two-year old – we decided it was best if he sat this one out, and to make him feel more comfortable staying at someone’s house for a whole evening, August stayed with him. Courtney and William came with me and watched the concert.

We’ve probably done better when it comes to certain parts of the Haydn (it seems the orchestra went quiet for a moment in the middle there), and I’ve never stumbled over the words in my solo until the concert, but it was barely noticeable, and Courtney, who’s usually my most harsh critic, said he didn’t notice it at all. I guess singing in Finnish has its advantages: nobody – or at least nobody in the AUB audience – can understand what you’re saying or tell if you’re getting the lyrics right or not. So Assembly Hall was packed, and we got standing ovations.

Of course, Courtney forgot the camera and/or the film camera so we have no documentation, however I’m sure some will show up soon in one way or another, and then I’ll try to post it.

Wednesday we practice on the beach, and Friday we sing the Tormis once more – on the beach - during an AUB arts performance, and then… there’ll be no more music class or choir rehearsal for me until the fall. It’s a welcome break coming up, however I know I’ll miss it in a few weeks.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The week before the concert

What a busy week! And we’re only half way through. Apart from everything else going on, we’ve had two choir rehearsals down this week - three to go. The AUB choir and Choral Society has been rehearsing every Wednesday night this semester, and this last week before the concert, we have five rehearsals, including the four-hour dress rehearsal on Sunday. All this work for one single performance on Monday night. It’s going to rock! (As far as rock can be applied to Haydn.)

Apart from Haydn’s Gloria, the Polyphonica, a special part of the choir, is doing one piece, and then we’re also singing a very interesting Arabic/Sufi song, and one in Finnish by Tormis. For this last piece, I am doing the solo together with two students. I am nervous, of course, but glad to be doing it. Some people find the piece really dreadful, but I think it’s fun and I feel very comfortable singing it – it reminds me of my Scandinavian childhood. I’m just hoping I’ll feel comfortable performing it in front of a packed Assembly Hall on Monday.

Will you come listen? Monday, 7:30 pm SHARP at Assembly Hall, The American University of Beirut campus.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Cereal and Aerobics - Nestle Fitness week in our household

We’ve been trying to move away from cereal in the mornings, because it’s a quite pricy breakfast in combination with milk, which is expensive here. One bottle of milk costs 2750 LE, and one pack of Cheerios/Golden Grahams/Special K/Nestle Fitness costs around 6000 LE. (3000 LE is $2) If all of us eat cereal every morning, we’ll go through 3 packs/week, and one bottle of milk/morning. That’s about $26/week just for cereal, which isn’t really a complete breakfast anyways, because without the protein, the boys will ask for something to eat within an hour after we’ve started school. This is where our major fruit consumption comes in. Kilos of grapefruits and bananas keep everyone going until lunch.

The upside with cereal though, as opposed to oatmeal, pancakes or scrambled eggs, is that I don’t have to cook anything, and it accumulates very little dishes. The boys can feed themselves breakfast and then put their bowls in the dishwasher. Because I already cook both lunch and dinner later in the day, I really don’t want to have to cook breakfast as well.

However, desperate times calls for desperate measures, so we decided to not buy cereal any more. Until earlier this week, when we noticed there was a special on Nestle Fitness and that you get a free workout video with your pack of cereal. So we bought two packs with two different workouts, which we – all of us - now have been doing every day for a week. It felt kind of silly at first, doing aerobics in our living room, but the boys seem to enjoy it, and I feel like I’m getting some much wanted exercise time in, without having to go anywhere or do anything (usually it’s a bit of a hassle, because it takes a while to get to the sports center and I don’t really know what to do with the kids anyways, etc.). Abraham even joins in, puts his arms up, jumps, and laughs through the whole program. The lady – Rachel Something – is a bit annoying, but aren’t aerobics instructors supposed to be? In any case, I’m trying to think of this round of cereal as not just a way of feeding our family, but as an investment in our health. And when the cereal runs out in a few days, we’ll still have the workout DVDs.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Feeding a family of five in Beirut

This week has been mentally exhausting due to our financial situation – every trip to the grocery store is a mathematical exercise, and every day we put our heads together to figure out what we can cook to fill our tummies without exceeding our budget. It’s pretty much impossible, but we have to keep trying. I feel like I spend most of my day cooking and cleaning up the kitchen. "Sorry August, I can't help you with your math right now! I'm making tortillas and have flour all over my hands!" 

Because May is one of our busiest months of the year, we usually rely on not having to cook at home a couple of times these weeks – we would order pizza or go out for burgers once or so every week on days that nobody was home before dinner. Since this is out of the question for the moment, we’re trying to get creative at home instead. 

What would you cook if you only had around $20 to feed a family of five every day?* (Three meals, snacks [fruit], and keeping nutrition in mind, of course.)

*Actually, “feed” is not correct, since this money has to cover not only food, but everything from diapers, wipes, cleaning supplies and hygiene articles, to clothes and shoes, etc. but lets pretend the money is earmarked for food for now.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

William opening his presents...

Happy Birthday, William!

Today my little boy William turns eight years old. He spent his last birthday in Cairo, Egypt, and the year he turned six, I wrote this short account of his birth, which took place in Mechelen, Belgium.

Today we are in Beirut, Lebanon, and we started the celebrations on Friday with a small party: friends, games, chocolate cake, drinks, snacks, and lots of playing. Today we gave William his presents in the morning (two small Lego sets, some kind of Bakugan thing that August insisted William would love, and that indeed they’ve been playing with all morning, a strap for his guitar, a cook book and a book about drawing, and a soccer ball), and will celebrate his birthday with a lot of leisurely hanging out, maybe some soccer if the field isn’t packed, Eggs Benedict with real bacon, and home-cooked Chinese food. Abraham is walking around saying, “Weee-yahm, happy Dew-eee!!” The boys are enjoying the new toys, and everyone is content.