Saturday, July 31, 2010

our "all at once, and nothing first" pajero

Today the AC quit working in our car. Today was also the first really sticky humid day in awhile, so we all arrived at the grocery store pink-faced and damp. The Pajero is at the dealership being dealt with and once we get an estimate, Justin and I will decide how much we want to continue dealing with our new decade-old SUV.

I didn't mind not owning a car in Colombia because taxis were easy, relatively cheap. Here, taxis are more expensive and I'm picky about who is driving. We have a driver we really like - Badur - but the prospect of loading a toddler and an infant in a taxi anytime we wanted to shop or go for a walk outside of our own sandy neighborhood was enough to make us just go buy a car. When you just go buy a car - a used car, because you figure you want to save more than you'd pay for a lease, and you aren't willing to commit to monthly payments knowing you'll eventually have to resell when you move; a used Pajero because you see loads of old Pajeros with gas tanks strapped on their backs, boxy bodies on the roads; a used Pajero that happens to fit the cash you're willing to immediately part with - well, when you just go buy a car, you just don't know what




We say: Let it live for two years. We get two years out of the beast, we'll be happy.

And if we'd bought a shiney new SUV, we'd probably have immediately wrecked the paint job in a parking lot anyway. Driving an old Pajero makes me super aware of all the young, pert BMWs Saabs Volvos Porsches BENTLEYs (!) haphazardly lounging in the lots, straddling lines on the diagonal, daring you to look too close. Needless to say, parking lots make me sweat. I find myself taking deep yoga breaths and telling Justin to just stop talking leave me alone I've got it. In five maneuvers or less.

So there we are, thinking we were making a smart decision a few months ago when we bought a car that has, since then: blown its head gasket, had a flat tire, begged for a new tie rod (I don't even know what that is), and now pooped out on the AC. Oh, and the radio doesn't work. None of that could have happened in the three months before we took ownership. Our very own One-Hoss Shay.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

one more from beirut

Justin read my last blog post and wanted to know why I didn't mention the military police we saw. Or the tanks. I had to think about why for a minute. The omission wasn't to spare my parents or in-laws (look where your grandbaby has been!) or to make Beirut seem a safer city than it is. We felt very safe in Hamra, the area we stayed, and in the Downtown, where we walked. Parts of the city are a bit dicey for Westerners - so I've been told - but every city has those streets that you're told to avoid. And not all regions of Lebanon are open or friendly toward Westerners. So as with travel in any new country, we were cautious.

While we were in Lebanon, a friend of mine traveled with her family to Athens. She'd campaigned for a trip to Lebanon, but her husband hesitated, believing it wasn't the safest option. (And really, it probably isn't. The safest option might be Sweden, unless you've been reading Stieg Larsson. But that's just me idealizing those Scandanavian countries). Anyway, they arrived in Greece to riots protesting government taxes, while wanting government aid.

So riots happen. My friend and her family were fine. They loved Athens. I think we'll love it too, when we get there. No enforced sales tax (one catalyst for the riots).

But back to why I didn't say anything about the military police or the random tanks parked off the side of a road. Well, because they didn't register as anything unusual to me. They seemed to belong. Perhaps that says something of how I've changed in the past couple of years, to not blink at a young man in camoflauge holding a gun and gaurding a street in the Downtown.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


Paris of the Middle East. We arrived in the early afternoon and driving north from the airport to our hotel in Hamra, I saw stacks of apartment buildings, their balconies waving flags of laundry. Another cramped, dirty city with cranes and dump trucks, men on motorbikes weaving between cars. I didn't see anything that said Paris. That didn't bother me. The name was given to Beirut long before her civil wars. Still, I have yet to meet a Lebanese person who does not praise their country. And after just four days there, we will return for more.

We loved the weather. Hot and a little humid, but not Kuwait Oven Hot. So we walked everywhere during our time in Beirut. One morning we walked down Bliss Street and visited the American University of Beirut. Beautiful campus, lots of green. It was the green - all over the city - that we enjoyed most. We saw some of the same flowering trees we knew from Colombia, and stopped a couple of times to just inhale the smell of living, green things.
More living green things.
This is a church in the Downtown area, pockmarked with bullet holes.
Roman ruins, also in the Downtown area. The Downtown pictures to follow show the success of at least part of this city's rebuilding process. The area was gorgeous, expensive, and spoiled pedestrians with several streets closed to traffic.
Place De L'Etoile.
On our walks, Claire would say, "Give me flower" and Justin usually obliged, picking a flower from a tree overhead. Here she finds her own. (And check out my belly. My head is the less attraction, I guess).

The entry to a mosque in the Downtown.
In the evenings, we went for a walk on the Corniche, along the Mediterranean Sea - a nice stretch of path to enjoy the cooler evening breeze. In Kuwait, there are enough Western expats that a blond haired kid isn't too much of a curiousity, but in Beirut, it was similar to being in Colombia or India. People stared, smiled, snapped their fingers in her face, wanted to touch her, kissed her, fawned, and pointed. She takes it in stride. When she feels like it, she smiles back and graces with a, "Hi-low."
The Rouche Sea Rock. You can see Beirut stretching further along the coast.
We do hope to return to Lebanon, the next time to drive around the country. But this short trip was a gift in the middle of our hot summer.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

back from beirut

We just spent four short days in Lebanon. Loved it. I dreaded the travel - just have not felt like going anywhere lately and was not excited about packing up for four days in a city.

"It'll still be hot," I grumbled.
"The plane ride," I complained.
"I'm pregnant," I whined.

And then I had to go anyway. We kept our itenerary (oh, let's just pretend we ever have one!) open, but had each picked a couple of things we wanted to do or see. Me: the Mediterranean, eat lots of Lebanese food (sort of fattouch-ed out after a couple days), walk, sleep, read. Yeah, I really didn't have much I was dying to do or see. Justin did a much better job of preparing for his trip and had a short list of culturally relevant places to see (which meant I got to see a few culturally relevant places too); he also wanted to find a pair of Birkenstocks (the last pair he bought in Ottawa and I think he wants to start a World City Birkenstock collection), and a Lebanese flag for his classroom.

The Lebanese flag has a tree on it, which beats Kuwait's variation of the Middle East redgreenblack theme. The old Kuwait flag is prettier, I think, but I guess leaders don't pick flags for pretty.

This trip coincided with my reading Muhajababes: Meet the New Middle East - Young, Sexy, and Devout by British author Allegra Stratton. The first part of the book covers her time in Beirut, so I learned a little about the city and brushed up on a short history of Lebanon while there. Always a little fun to read about a place and know you just ate lunch in that same area.

I'll post pictures in the next couple of days.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

on deciding not to lick this shoe

In high school, a friend of mine put together a jokey email he sent out to friends once a week or so. Think The Onion covering high school gossip. I did something - probably something small - to annoy him and I was off the list.

"Please, please, please," I begged, "Put me back on."

"Okay," Ian said, "If you lick my shoe." He stuck out his leg, rolled his ankle, his chunky skate shoe taunting me. "Go ahead. Lick it."

I don't remember if I licked his shoe or not. I probably did. And that only illustrates the grovelling-approval-seeking-wimp part of my personality. A kind of trait most people hope they leave behind with the freeing toss of mortarboards on graduation. (Here is where I admit: I didn't toss mine that high because I didn't want to lose it; at the time, that square cap seemed like something I should hold on to forever). Anyway, no one wants to be a shoe-licker and while I manage to be fairly-confident-pretty-content-mostly-pleased with my life decisions, sometimes I imagine a row of dirty sneakers, scuffed heels, worn flip-flops, and I feel compelled to lick them all.

Exhibit A: The insane urge to contact every person I have intentionally or unintentionally wronged/hurt/angered, with or without their knowing, and apologize. (I had a couple of stellar years during my early twenties when I thought I knew what I was doing). Truth: most of those forty-seven (rough estimate) people would probably ask, "Sarah who? And what did you say you did? Oh. I don't remember that." Lick, lick, lick.

Exhibit B: This whole overthinking living abroad business.

Three years abroad. All my family is grilling out and playing Bananagrams in Wisconsin. I am pregnant with my second child who will not meet grandparents until nine or ten months old. And I was unnerved to realize we really don't know what comes after Kuwait. So all of that together made me want to lick shoes to get back on the list. (The list our parents are keeping, an imagined list titled Good Sons and Daughters Who Do as We Hope, Like Live Next Door*).

Reality: Our departure from Wisconsin, and then from Colombia, did not leave gaping holes in either place. At schools, we were easily replaced by other teachers. In neighborhoods, someone else began paying rent. And after the first year of missing Gurnee weekend with Justin's family or Thanksgiving with mine - well, it became normal. Running partners and  bike buddies still head out on loops and trails. The little normals we were part of seal up, replaced by new little normals. And meanwhile, we are doing the same thing: making our new normals.

It is rather self-important of me to think that our living abroad so greatly affects the friends and family we still miss. I know our families would enjoy weekend visits and our friends would start potluck Wednesday again, but their lives are not incomplete because we live in another time zone. Perhaps most of us (me!) wish our absence will be daily noted, mourned a little. Like: life just isn't the same without Sarah Marslender to keep me company.

Oh, but it probably isn't that much different either.

Realizing that, I don't think I need to lick any shoes about living abroad. Our choice isn't devestating. It isn't a wound. And if not always optimal, living abroad does not need to be a barrier to keeping home relationships.

I'd love to meet Georgia or Stetson for a run; grab a coffee with Kate or Nira; enjoy dinner with Jason and Michelle or Scott and Sonia; have tea with my mom or Rollene. But I can't right now. And that is okay. Right here in Kuwait I have friendships to enjoy and new normals to embrace.

And no shoes to lick.

* I don't think this list really exists. If it does, they should burn it before they die and we have to go through their stuff.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

overthinking living abroad summer slump travel plans

This past week I have been thinking a lot about living abroad. I had a conversation with my friend Kate not too long ago and she wondered whether the United States would ever feel like it wasn't our home anymore. Will we get so used to being overseas that returning seems undesirable? I have been turning that idea over in my mind and Justin and I talked about it too. Our standard response to living abroad is, of course we'll return to the States (eventually, sometime, someday). But after Kate and I talked and I said the same thing to her - of course we'll return to the States - I realized: we really cannot say that with certainty.

When we decided to move abroad, even then, we didn't know how long we would be away. Five years seemed reasonable. But then we went to the job fair and at the welcome-orientation-go-get-'em speech, an overseas school administrator stood behind his podium and said, "When I first moved abroad, I thought I'd be gone for a year. Twenty-three years later..."

And Justin nudged me and we glanced at each other, silly grins. Moving abroad had been my idea - a non-negotiable when we started talking about our future together - but that weekend at the job fair, he said to me, "I can see doing this for a long time." Granted, we were heady with a few successful interviews and offers, and energized by all the conversations we had with other expats (soon we would be expats too!), but still, that was the weekend when we began to think maybe ten years? twenty? why not twenty-three years abroad?

So I've been thinking about our reasons for moving abroad, and reasons for staying abroad, and reasons for returning to the States. And in the middle of all this thinking, I hit a summer slump.

International teachers travel. Oh, give them a long weekend and they will go find a bus to board. Winter and spring breaks are made to add stamps to passports. Someone usually knows someone who has been to Bulgaria and if you need a Lonely Planet Egypt, just whisper it at a barbeque.

Well, we are international teachers, but we are not traveling much right now. So with most of the staff gone for summer holiday, and the few remaining summer school teachers getting ready to board planes within the next week, I am feeling slumpy. I don't even really want to travel because I am close to uncomfortably pregnant, and I have a toddler, and it's an expensive season. But still. If I wasn't pregnant, we'd be standing in a customs line, thumbing a Lonely Planet.

Since we aren't off on a long summer away - a short trip to Lebanon will have to keep us happy - we've been talking about where we want to go next. Justin and I were sketching travel plans over the next two or three years, and I pointed out that if we were still in Wisconsin we wouldn't be taking big fat yearly vacations on our teachers' salaries. So why feel compelled to take big fat vacations now? So scrapping the big fat vacations, what do we really, really want to see while we are in this region of the world?

Oman. Jordan. The pyramids, because we'd kick ourselves if we didn't. And Turkey, because everyone raves about Turkey. Oh, and Greece. Maybe Malta.

Anyway. There was a subtle shift in how we talked about our loose travel plans. It became okay to feel less urgent about seeing this or that, because we have also started to be realistic about how long we may actually be abroad. There is no rush to hop over to Paris or spend a week in Irish countryside. We'll likely get there. We might be taking our teenagers along, but we'll likely get there.

Even writing that here makes me want to rush to assure Stateside family and friends: of course we'll return to the States. Eventually, sometime, someday.

Edited to add, so I don't panic the folks back home.

Talking about what may happen in the next decade is what it is: talking about what may happen in the next decade. Another friend of mine, Christine, and I were discussing this whole messy thing about living abroad - what to say when friends and family ask about your return. Truth is, it's much easier to just say what we've been saying, someday we'll head back to the States.

I'll likely blog about this more later, but the prospect and process of returning to the States sometimes seems more difficult than the decision to leave was. Justin and I are not opposed to returning and settling. We aren't opposed to living in the States for awhile only to go abroad again. But that's just it: we aren't opposed to too much right now. We simply cannot say what our Big Life Plan is yet. (How many of those Big Life Plans go your way, anyhow?) So moving back to the States at this point presents way more issues - personal, location, financial, lifestyle - than any resolution or relief.

I make more of this than it is. Mostly, whenever I think about why we aren't ready to return to the States yet, I think of what our parents and my siblings might want. Then I think about what I want. I think they should all move abroad, so we could get more passport stamps on holiday.