Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year!

It's two hours til midnight on December 31st here in Amman. Happy 2010 everyone!

Monday, December 28, 2009

It's a Small World After All... at least in Amman

So I brought my mom some extremely good looking glass ornaments and decorations that I got downtown in Amman from a delightful Armenian man named Kokozian, who makes and paints all his own goods. She pulls her present out of the box, gave the customary ohs and ahs and then said, "Wait a second. Kokozian. Doesn't your Uncle Jim know him?"

The back story is that my Uncle Jim also spent a year in Jordan a few years ago. He apparently found the same shop Lena, Heather and I found and became fast friends with Kokozian. Unbeknownst to either of us, I found the same shop and befriended the same man. Kokozian was so fond of Uncle Jim that he called him his brother and gave him free stuff to send to my grandparents, who he called his parents.

I can't wait to get back to Amman to tell Kokozian that I'm the niece of his friend Jim. My wasta continues.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Re-Entry

So here I am, curled up in my comfy bed, deep in the heart of West Texas. I went to a club last night to dance the night away with my best friend, who has barely left my side, my brother flew in this evening, I've spent lots of quality time with the 'rents, and, best of all, I have my kids rolled up into balls, sleeping happily against my legs.

My first meal in the U.S. was a rush to Chick Fil-A after my plane landed in Dallas at 10 p.m. But my first REAL meal in the U.S. was what I've been craving for four months now: Tex Mex. My family and I went to On the Border last night, where I salivated over a plate of Southwest Chicken Tacos. Today, we went to see The Princess and the Frog (cute, but somewhat forgettable) and thus had to go out for Cajun food tonight. I have plans to visit Rosa's, another Tex Mex place, and Saigon Cafe, a Vietnamese place, in the next few days, and Jimmy promised to make a vegetarian lasagna for me soon. My culinary dreams are met. My mouth is loving America, even if my stomach and my waistline are not.

Some things I've noticed about being back in America, in no particular order:

1) Your cats will not remember you if you are away for five months. Then they will start to remember you but will be pissed off at you for leaving. It will take a good two days for them to consent to sleeping with you. This process can be sped up by offering kitty treats.

2) Holy water pressure, Batman! I didn't think our shower in Jabal Amman was that bad, but compared to my parents' shower, it's a mere trickle. I can rinse my hair in about ten seconds flat. AND I don't have to wake up 45 minutes early just to turn on the hot water. Wow.

3) There are a TON of freaking squirrels here. Silly critters. And there's a serious lack of scruffy cats.

4) No one walks. Anywhere. At any time. And they stare at me when I do. And I actually miss walking around Amman just because.

5) Everyone speaks English. And they do not respond to "Shukran," as evidenced by the bartender who gave me an extremely funny look when all I did was thank him.

6) On that note, it's harder to stop saying "Shukran" and "Yella" than you might think.

7) I am now behind the times when it comes to the latest cool songs to dance to in nightclubs.

8) I love happy hours in America. $2 well drinks. Heck yeah.

9) These drivers are passive. And relaxed. And do not attempt to speed by each other or run over pedestrians. Surreal.

10) I have lost the art of friendly conversation with overly chummy Texans. They now think I am rude despite the fact that my Texas accent is indeed coming back. Must curb that before I attempt to teach anyone English again.

Overall, life is grand.

Recap: Ending the year in Jordan

So December turned out to be a busy month for me, what with Christmas parties, packing and school stuff. We did have a Christmas party in our apartment that was a roaring success, despite (or perhaps because of?) the crowds of unknown people who showed up at our apartment.

I finished up all my Christmas shopping, much to the anticipated glee of my family members, especially my brother, who will be stoked when he opens his gift. I'm sure.

But the highlight (almost) of my preparations for leaving Jordan was my last day of school before I took off for America. It turns out that my kids absolutely love me after all. I was treated to a day of powerpoints on how much they would miss me, love letters telling me I better come back and a surprise party in one class, complete with presents and food galore. This makes coming back to Jordan a whole lot easier!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Everything in Jordan is an Adventure. Even the Internet.

So for two weeks now, we've been without Internet at the apartment because we were deciding what to do with our old Internet and figuring out how to get a new Internet service.

The provider we used at our old apartment is a satellite technology, which means that we basically have a modem router that collects an Internet signal from outside, not from a land line or cable. But I wasn't sure if we would be able to pick up that signal from our new house. I asked around and was told to check with the biggest service provider. I wandered over to their store, didn't like what I saw (they said we would have to wait EIGHT DAYS for Internet! Pff!), and called our old standby.

First of all, the dude on the phone asked where I lived. I gave him a detailed mental map of our area, down to the school across the street and what I could see out my window. He said that only parts of our street were covered. So they would have to send a man out to see if we were even on the right side of the street for a signal. A'adi.

So I waited around for the gentleman to show up. He did, brought a modem with him and proceeded to tell me we have an excellent signal in our TV room. First bit of good news all day. We discuss prices, grab the contract and are ready to go. And then he asks to see my residency card. Oh crap.

"Um. Ha ha," I said cleverly. "I don't really have one yet. But we are right now in the process of getting them!" I added with a feverish grin, all the while thinking I would cheerfully hold everyone involved in my residency application process over hot coals if I would not get Internet until I was a resident. "Do you want to see my visa? My passport? Anything? Ha ha?"

It turns out that no, the visa was not good enough. Neither was the passport. I finally had the bright idea to pull out Heather's contract with the school to prove we worked and lived here in Jordan (the fact that we were standing in the living room of my apartment was apparently not enough proof, nor was the pile of cash I was attempting to hand over.). This is good, the guy said, but I need to know that you STILL work here. (Apparently the fact that the contract was until June of next year wasn't good enough either.)

(P.S. The guy was actually super nice about all this; it was just a frustrating situation.)

So we worked out an arrangement where I would keep the modem, pay him the money and then go to school the next day and get a letter from my boss that said I still worked there. We signed the contract, and everything was peachy.

But why on Earth is nothing in Jordan ever simple?

Random Bits of News

First of all, a big hip-hip-HOORAY because we finally have Internet at our new apartment! No, it is not wireless yet, and yes, only one of us can be on it at a time, but it's a start. It's a start.

To make matters even more attractive, we also have HOT WATER! Today was the first hot shower I've had since Thanksgiving. It was nice. It was very nice.

I also got a great haircut today from an excellent hairdresser. So my hair is clean and curled AND I took a hot shower. Life is good.

We did have a bit of annoying news today. Heather, Lena and I had asked for some days off before Christmas so we could all go home and see our families. We are leaving on the 18th and are all coming back the 30th, 31th and 1st, respectively, because we had to be at school on the 2nd. NOW they tell us that we don't have to be back until the 4th. I know it is just two more days, but I would have really liked to have spent that time with my family. Uncool. And the reason behind the change? Shockingly, the school realized that the 1st of January is New Year's Day and thus a holiday. Who would have guessed it.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Water Troubles

Water. We drink it. We bathe with it. We use it constantly in every part of our lives. And now I live in the desert, where water is a precious, precious commodity.

Unlike in America, where water appears magically in our houses via pipes, the water in Jordan is delivered to each apartment every week. The complexes all have water tanks on the roofs that are filled up once a week. That is all the water you get for the entire week unless you pay more money.

Once in Daheit al Rasheed, we ran out of water. We don’t know how, but we speculated that it involved a leak because we had never before nor after used up our entire tank. We spent the remaining two days of our week with no water. It was unpleasant.

Since moving in to our new place, we’ve had even more water trouble. We moved in on Monday and found out Tuesday morning that our water heater wasn’t working. No hot water. On Wednesday night, a repair man came over and fixed it. We were fine until Saturday morning when we ran out of water completely. Apparently, no one had opened up our tank so that we got our share of the delivered water, so we had been using up whatever was left from the people before us.

As we had a dinner the next day, we ran around all afternoon trying to remedy the situation. A guy came over and ran a line from another empty apartment’s tank into ours so we could steal their water. Our tank was refilled for real on Wednesday, so we are back on the water circuit.

This time, we made it five days without a problem. Yesterday, Heather was doing a load of clothes and found out that the entire socket that the washing machine and the water heater is plugged into isn’t working. So once again, we have no hot water. Even better, it’s Eid right now, so we probably won’t be able to get it fixed until after the holidays because, again, the entire country basically stops for Eid.

Normally, we could run over and take showers at Lena’s house, which is only a seven-minute walk. That indeed was our plan until last night, when Lena told us that her apartment was out of water as well. They had gone through their entire tank in a day and a half. Somebody has a leak.

The three of us might be a tiny bit smelly by the end of Eid. Methinks it might be time to hit the Turkish baths.

A Jordanian Thanksgiving 2

As if one day of absolute digestive nightmares wasn’t enough, I actually had two days of edible bliss. Yesterday, I was invited to two separate Thanksgiving dinners, one right after another. I got up yesterday morning fully intending to go to bed that night with an extremely upset stomach. And I was not disappointed.

It started out with a dinner at my dear cousin’s father-in-law’s house in Abdoun. At 1:30 p.m., I headed over to Samir’s absolutely magnificent house. Once there, I played with the kids while Melissa made Aunt Sue’s famous crab dip in the kitchen. I alternated between hanging out with the kids and speaking to three American girls I just met while the food was being prepared. We stood in a group drinking white wine, which I found out was a dangerous pastime as servers kept walking around filling up our wine glasses every time we took a drink.

Finally at about 3 p.m., supper was served. It was magnificent. There were two turkeys, one overflowing with stuffing. There were several vegetables and three different kinds of sweet potato. We ate our fill, then chatted amicably until dessert. Lissa and the kids had made cookies and two cobblers. There was also pecan pie and a pumpkin cheesecake. I was quite stuffed by the end of it.

At 4:30 p.m., rather full, I hopped in a taxi and headed to my second dinner at Lena’s house. I got to walk up Rainbow Street to work off some of those calories and was almost ready not to explode when I started eating there as well.

We passed an extremely pleasant seven hours continuously eating, drinking, telling jokes and singing. It was a great Thanksgiving.

I did go to bed with a very sore stomach. I think I’ll walk to Israel tomorrow to work off a fraction of what I’ve eaten this week.

A Jordanian Thanksgiving

In honor of the glorious American tradition of eating until you make yourself sick, Heather and I decided to host a Thanksgiving Dinner in our apartment six days after moving in.

In the days before the big event, we spent cleaning up the apartment and buying various necessities, such as serving dishes, lamps, a turkey, etc. I was to make the turkey, the stuffing, mashed potatoes, corn casserole, an apple pie and a pumpkin pie. Heather was going to make green bean casserole and sweet potato casserole.

The night before the big event, I set about making the two pies with ingredients that my terrific mother sent me from the states. Tom the turkey hung out with me in the sink. We bonded.

The next morning, I got up at 10:30 a.m. to make the stuffing and stuff Tom. I expertly crammed bread, onion and celery into Tom and put the raw turkey in a serving dish. I then walked down the streets of Jordan in my pajamas and carrying a raw turkey all the way to Lena’s house, where he would be cooked because he wouldn’t fit in our confectionary oven and Lena has an actual oven, even if it is a scary gas one. Tom was heavy.

While at Lena’s house, she told me Heather had called her this morning. Heather was sick with the flu and would not be participating in the festivities. Which meant I got to cook the entire meal myself. Lena volunteered to take over the sweet potato casserole.

I left Lena’s house and took a shower. Then Lena called me. Apparently in my absence, Tom had become anxious and was almost done cooking after only an hour. No good, especially when the dinner wasn’t until six. Lena graciously volunteered to babysit Tom all day. We turned the heat as low as we could and resolved to baste the crap out of him until dinner. Nothing in Jordan is ever simple.

I ran back to my house and started cooking. I cooked and cooked and, and just for fun, cooked some more, straight up until 5:30 p.m. Then I went to pick up Tom. If I thought Tom was heavy on the way down, his juicy, stuffed body was unbearable on the way up. I had to stop twice to rest and got many lovely stares along the way. I also nearly slopped boiling hot turkey juices down myself. Fun times. Fun times.

When, arms shaking from exhaustion and back caked with sweat, I arrived at my apartment, I finished all the rest of the cooking before the guests arrived, with the exception of the biscuits, which I asked my male Arabic friend to help me with. He promptly misread the mixing instructions, used the entire box of Bisquick, and then got the biscuits stuck to the aluminum foil he was cooking them on. We did not eat biscuits for dinner that night.

But we had enough wine and other good food to make up for it. And carrying Tom Turkey up and now was totally worth it. He was delicious. A good time was had by all. It would have been better had Heather been able to join.

Coming out of the Wardrobe? Only for C.S. Lewis.

In moving to our new place, I’ve noticed two things I found interesting about Jordanian houses.

The first thing is that though all bathrooms have toilet paper rungs, they are never used except in restaurants and businesses. Both of our houses contained perfectly good toilet paper rung spots, but you can’t find a metal bar to go through the roll to save your life. Instead, at least at our house, toilet paper is set on the bidet found in every bathroom. Or on the top of the toilet. But NOT in the toilet paper rung.

The second thing I’ve noticed is that Jordan does not believe in closets. Personal closets, storage closets, any kind of closet. In our old place, we kept our vacuum cleaner and cleaning supplies in the third bathroom that didn’t work. We kept the washing machine in Nadia’s room. Here, our cleaning supplies and washing machine take up the majority of the half bathroom. We have an ironing board randomly hanging out in the living room. And the vacuum and other stuff we didn’t want is entrenched in one of Heather’s wardrobes.

In each place, we’ve had wardrobes supplied by the house in which we can put all our clothes, stuff and shoes. This custom works well.

However, I have to think that a culture unfamiliar with closets would be missing out on an intrinsic and humorous part of our American culture. How many jokes do we have about closets? A closet intellectual. Coming out of the closet. Well, actually that’s all I can think of, but still. A wardrobe intellectual? Coming out of the wardrobe? Just doesn’t really have the same ring to it, does it?

Our New Abode

The day we signed the contract, we let the ink dry and then raced to the new place to check it out. Ah. Just as fabulous as we’d remembered from our two previous visits. Newish, comfortable furniture. Nice open rooms. A great view off one side of the house. And best of all, a seven-minute walk to school.

While one guy fixed various things around the apartment, I performed the most important of all our moving-in tasks: I made up my new bed.

It is a glorious thing. A double-bed, it is NOT two twins pushed together with a lumpy blanket shoved in between, so it can only be an improvement over my last sleeping spot. It has a rather impressive-looking dark wood frame, and, the best part, it comes with box springs so high that even I, massively tall, jolly green giant of the Arab world, must hop a little bit to get into it. Glorious. Please excuse the horribly grainy photos taken with my laptop computer. My good ones are not functioning properly at the moment, which leads me to think they might not be my good ones.

The rest of my room is not quite as nice, though I would have been able to put up with a sinkhole to have that bed. The furniture matches the frame, but it is showing a bit of wear in places. My desk drawer won’t open or close without quite an impressive fight, and my wardrobe, while straighter than my last one, doesn’t hold quite as much. I also do not yet have a mirror. I am working on remedying that situation. But I have two windows, one that has a pretty decent view of the city. My room also came with a cork board, to which I have already affixed pictures of many of my favorite people, and I’m working on getting the rest of you favorite people up there.

We have one and a half bathrooms, but I’m iffy about the half. That toilet tends to run, so we keep it turned off. But it’s nice to have in emergencies, such as when one of us is occupying our favorite bathroom. The bathroom with a shower is nice and spacious. It also has a whole tiny shelf more storage space than our old one. The shower has almost as much water pressure than the old place, and the toilet seat is firmly attached to the toilet, unlike in our old place.

The other bathroom is functional, but it is stuffed with cleaning supplies and a washing machine, so sitting down and taking your time in there is a mite uncomfortable.

We have two living-roomish places: a TV room with one couch and a sitting room, with one couch and some lounge chairs. The TV and cable work. I’m still trying to get our DVD player to function. I’m hoping a good cleaning will allow it to read discs again, apparently an important part of DVD functionality. The sitting room + dining room + bookshelves room allows me to display my random selection of books to our guests and gives them somewhere to sit. Plus, it looks classy.

The kitchen is also big and houses probably the least impressive of the furniture. Instead of a real stove + oven combo, we have a confectionery oven and a two-burner stove top. This makes cooking just a smidge more challenging, but I live off of falafel now anyway.

The second most annoying thing in our apartment was the lighting. All fluores- cent. Ouch. So we chipped in and bought some nice lamps to place strategically around the house to create a warm glow instead of the seizure-inducing strobe effect of the fluorescents. Nice.

The trip down the staircase of this new place is much cleaner and less smoky (remember the fire?) than our last one. We live right above the caretaker of the complex, an elderly Muslim woman, so we’ll have to keep the parties to a minimum. And at the foot of the staircase is a brief wander through a hallway adorned with plant life. Ah, greenery! And then we find our super secure front door, which comes equipped with two locks than you can’t get open even if you live here, so I know it’s keeping the bad guys out.

Did I mention it’s a seven-minute walk to work? Hello, Heaven. I have found you on Earth.

How did I accumulate this much crap in three months?

Apologizes for being off the air for a while. We still don’t have Internet in our new apartment, so these backlogged blogs were uploaded via conveniently located Internet café. We hope to supply our new place with much-needed Internet access sometime after Eid because Jordan apparently comes to a standstill during holidays.

Moving on.

We are finally holed up nicely in our new apartment. Last Monday, November 16th, we marched (or taxied because I was carrying a ton of grading) down to the rental office and signed our contract. Right now it is unfortunately a month-to-month contract, but we are hoping to have a chat with the owner when she is back in the country so we can aim for an eight-month contract. That should get me right to the middle of July, perfect timing to escape back to the U.S.

After spending a bit of time at the apartment checking things out and cleaning, we grabbed a taxi and said, for one of the last times, Daheit al Rasheed. Once back at that place we called home, we began packing. We wanted to bring over a few bags that first day and practice sleeping and getting up later.

Three and a half months ago, I came to Jordan with two huge duffel bags full of stuff, one carry-on-sized suitcase and a bulging backpack. By the time I finished packing, every bag I brought with me was stuffed to the gills, all of my clothes were still on the hangers, ready to be transferred to my new wardrobe, and I had about twenty little plastic bags fully of stuff as well. Where did all this stuff come from? And how in the WORLD am I going to get it back home to America next summer?

I ran down to our old familiar stores to buy toilet paper and tissues. We didn’t know where to get such items in our new location yet. And that purchase just couldn’t wait any longer.

Our friend came to the apartment and we packed up a good half of our stuff that night. We lasted for two days on that, then on Wednesday we decided to go back for the rest of it. We still had a significant amount of junk to haul over. And our friend with his oh-so-convenient car was not there to help us. What to do?

We went out to the main road near our old apartment. We pulled over two taxi drivers, one of whom spoke English, and told them we would give them extra money if they helped us move our stuff. They cheerfully (or in the case of the one non-English speaking driver, confusedly) agreed. They dragged our considerable amount of stuff down and threw it in the taxis. They drove us to first circle and threw the stuff in our new apartment.

Two hours later, I was officially and completely moved in.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Get ready, Jabal Amman, because here we come!

For the last three months, Heather and I have been happily entrenched in our spacious apartment in Daheit al Rasheed, which is in the far north of the city.

The rent is cheap, the stores near our house are cheap, and the company is good. However, the beds are uncomfortable (two twins pushed together anyone?), the taxi rides to and from school are ridiculous, and the neighborhood is a bit more conservative than we'd like.

About two weeks ago, our roommate Nadia told us that she was moving out at the beginning of December. We thought about it for a bit and decided that we should also try to move down to the middle of the city where our school is and where it is so much closer to everything else we usually go to.

The very next day, a rainstorm hit the city. We stood in the rain for 20 minutes waiting for a taxi, then spent 45 minutes in the taxi on our way to school. 5alas. That was it. It was time to move.

A few days ago, Heather and I checked out an apartment that is about a five-minute walk to our school. It is right in Jabal Amman, the place to be in Amman. AND, the selling point for me at least, it comes furnished with AMERICAN-style double beds! A mattress! AND boxsprings! Ah. Luxury.

The problem was the asking price. Too much. Way too much. We counteroffered and waited two days to see if it was accepted. Yesterday, we heard the answer. YES!

We move later this week. Jabal Amman, here we come! And more importantly, comfortable beds, here we come!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Ana mabsoota lamma ana be7ki arabi... sort of...

The moment you've all been waiting for is here. No, not the season finale of Mad Men. I'm finally going to devote the time to writing a post that has been in the works since my second week here: the joys of learning Arabic.

My continuing observation is that Arabic is a doozy of a language to learn. It's not just the backwards curlicue letters I had to memorize, though I'm not going to lie, those took a while. Because 1) you have to completely flip your brain around to start on the right side, which is a bit like an American trying to drive on the left side of the road, 2) all those silly little squiggles look alike and 3) those quirky worms change COMPLETELY depending on where they are in the word. All the fancy calligraphies they use here do not help in distinguishing that circle/line/wiggle with this circle/line/squiggle.

What makes reading Arabic even harder is that they LEAVE ALL THE FREAKING VOWELS OUT OF WORDS! Instead of true vowels, in Arabic they have "voices," called harakots. These voices tell you whether you should use an "a" sound, an "oo" sound or an "e" sound in between the consonants. And no one ever bothers to actually put them in words because they already know how the word is pronounced. I do not. It would be a bit like trying to pronounce English properly f w snck ll th vwls t f th lngge drng th nght (if we snuck all the vowels out of the language during the night).

Plus, if you want to type Arabic easily on cell phones or Facebook messages, you have to transliterate it into Latin letters. So it's basically like learning two different languages: one in a readable alphabet and one made of curled up bits of ribbon.

Actually, it's even more like learning two different languages because of all the different Arabics out there. There's fus-ha, which is the classical Arabic taught in schools and nearly completely useless if you want to be understood in the taxi. It's a bit like if someone jumped off the plane in rural West Texas and said, "Charming morning, good sir. Wouldst thou assist me in obtaining my belongings?" What I'm learning is amia, the spoken Arabic language of Jordan, which will be useless in any other Arabic-speaking country.

And don't get me started on the wacky conjugations this language employs. First of all, the infinitive is in the past tense. PAST TENSE! So no cheating like my mom did in France by using all infinitives. "I to have to go to eat now." And though I am getting better at figuring them out, to me the conjugations only bear the slightest resemblance to the original word. For example, long before we started conjugating verbs, our teacher taught us the word "btodros" means "you (masculine) study. While looking at another sentence, we came across the word "darast" and didn't know what it meant. "Well what word does it look like?" she asked. Apparently the answer was "btodros," though I'm definitely not seeing it. But yes indeedy, "darast" does in fact mean "you (masculine) studied." Weird.

Another fun fact about Arabic is that they don't just stick a fun "s" on the end of a word to make it plural. No, no, that would be much too simple. They actually have TWO different plurals for every noun. One plural means two of something, which you make by adding "een" or "teen" to the end of the word, and one plural that means three or more, which is usually a different word entirely. For example, "osboa3" is week, "osboa3een" is two weeks and "asabee3" is three or more weeks.

In the end, though, it will all be worth it. When Arabs speak Arabic, it is a beautiful language. All the sounds are subtle and flow gently like water over a stream. For some reason, when they speak, all the harsh sounds are swept into the other sounds so that it is still soft and musical.

When I speak, it sounds like I am coughing up a hairball. They have one "H" sound, similar to the French "R," that literally sounds like you are gagging. When Heather and I have to spell words, we call that sound "phlegm." As in spelling Ahmad: A... phlegm...

Ahmad the Dead Terrorist aside, we also have to pronounce a "Qa" sound from the back of the throat, possibly from somewhere near the rib cage. To do this, unhinge your jaw and drop it somewhere around your belly button while jutting out your chin, bugging your eyes out and doing a credible impression of saying "aaah" at the dentist's, only with a "Q." There's a breathless "H" sound that is more like a wheeze from an emphysema patient or perhaps Darth Vadar, and of course the guttural stop that sounds like someone just clapped a sweaty palm over your mouth mid-word with an audible pop.

But my two favorites are an "R" sound that sounds like the "GRA" sound a baby makes when it has just dumped dinner down its shirt and an "A" sound that is basically a nasalized, controlled yell. This war cry is tragically in what seems like half the words in the Arabic language.

So while Arabs get to sound smooth and cultured, we foreigners get to sound like we are slowly going criminally insane. EstAna DaEEaA. Ya tEEk AAAl AAAfia! I say hysterically to the taxi driver, imagining the men in white coats sneaking up behind me with a restraining jacket. "Quick grab her now! While she's in mid-wail!"

Should have stuck with being fluent in Texan.

Peculiar Prefixes

I was grading some prefix/suffix homework today in which the girls had to find ten words with a prefix or suffix in their books and then write the root word of the original word. In the course of grading, I had two answers that totally made my day.

First of all, one girl found the word "button." The root word? "Butt."

But my favorite was the word "discuss." The root word, according to my other student, is "cuss." I laughed really hard on that one.

In a way, it makes sense I guess. "Dis" means to remove or separate, so if you removed the "cussing" from a conversation, maybe you could have a pretty decent discussion...

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Winter Wonderland?

Well, for all of you who have been sending me nasty emails about the hot weather in Jordan, feel free to snicker behind your hands and/or guffaw openly. Our crazy summer, which stretched to the end of October, is finally over. And now we can enjoy fall.

Or not. On Halloween day, it abruptly skipped fall and dove right into winter. Unfortunately most of my cold weather gear is waiting for me to pick in up in Texas, so it might be a chilly month and a half for me. But I did buy some comfy new pajama pants I will be wearing about 16 hours a day, so I'm prepared.

The worst part is not the cold. Cold I can handle. The rain, however, is getting old. Now normally I love rain. But not in this country. Do you know what happens when you mix rain with a city built on dirt? My shoes ankle-deep in mud. That's what happens.

THREE Month Anniversary

Today is the three month anniversary of my arrival in Jordan.

It occurs to me that I should probably start picking a longer length of time to get excited about at this point. I'll hold out on the next announcement until I hit the big six.

Time's fun when you're having flies.

Monday, November 2, 2009

I scream, you scream, we all scream for...

The best line I've heard in my English class in a while came when I was teaching the girls how to write a paragraph. We were researching pumpkins (it WAS Halloween), but the example was about ice cream. The clincher, or conclusion, of the sample paragraph was, after talking about how good ice cream is, "No wonder we say, "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream."

One of the brightest girls in my class had figured out that we were going to use the same format to write about pumpkins. She raised her hand.

"So we are going to write a clincher for the pumpkin paragraph as well, right?" she asked.

"Yes, of course."

"And could we say, "I scream, you scream, we all scream for pumpkins?"

It took me a while to get the class to settle down after the general hilarity of seeing their teacher crack up for a whole minute.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Halloween - The Jordanian Way

If I were in America at this time of year, my days would be filled with enjoying the newly crisp weather, watching the leaves turn colors, and experiencing every haunted house, ghost story and supernatural hunting show on television.

Tragically, my October has been a bit devoid of all of my favorite parts of fall. You would not believe how hard it is to find fake blood here. Or for that matter, blood-red lipstick at the last minute.

Despite the rather lacking Halloween spirit, my friends and I managed to get into the swing of things with two different Halloween parties. It turns out that taxi cab drivers are not used to transporting people with green makeup or blood all over their faces, although I got no weird comments, only weird looks.

I also had a fun time at the Halloween party at my school, where all my little monsters dressed up in super colorful costumes. We had everything from clowns to Princess Jasmine to several Hannah Montanas. Ah. Sure. The shops here will sell Halloween costumes for little kids, but you still can't find a thing for us bigger kids. Apparently adults here are not as keen on smearing paint all over their faces come Halloween. We'll give it a couple of years.

It's nice to see my favorite holiday spreading around the globe.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Semi-Coherent Tirade

I’ve lost a bit of the righteous anger I had going for me last week, which has since dissolved into hopeless frustration, but I’ll try to recapture it for the sake of posterity.

The school is attempting to get us residency cards to make traveling and obtaining visas in Jordan more accessible. To that end, they hired a new H.R. representative to help us along that perilous journey through the bureaucracy. To demonstrate what a progressive measure the H.R. rep is, my friend Maya has been in Jordan working at the school since February. The school is just now getting around to applying for her residency. She says it’s a good thing a herd of us foreign teachers showed up or she would have never gotten in to this ultra-exclusive club.

Residency cards allow you to travel and enter Jordanian-run attractions for a tenth of the price you pay if you are a resident. We would REALLY like the cards by the end of November so we can jet off to Wadi Rum and Petra for the next Eid holiday, and the cards will let us pay roughly a twentieth of the foreigner’s price. Worth the wait. Also it will make crossing borders, our other Eid option, a heck of a lot easier. The second reason is that I don’t want a repeat of my experience attempting to come to Jordan.

Highly emotional and on the verge of hysterical about leaving my family, I was told by the guy at the Delta counter that I could not board the plane without a Jordanian visa or a return ticket to America, neither of which I possessed. The result of this confrontation was me bursting into tears at the counter (I said I was emotional) and my mother buying me a $2,000 refundable ticket back to the U.S., which we promptly refunded. As I am going home for Christmas, I would love not to have a fight at the ticket counter again, even though every person I’ve talked to about this has said the Delta representative was full of go-se (not to get too Firefly nerdy on you).

This promise of residency is what sent me into the questionable clinic in a previous blog (my tests came back clean, though I’d be interested to see if I’m still clean AFTER the blood test). It also sent three of us to the police station last Wednesday to get fingerprinted. After spending a week trying to get all three of us together to make the trip, I ended up skipping my morning class. We grabbed our passports and arrived at the police station, where they promptly made us wait for about an hour. They took my two friends’ passports to renew the visas but said mine had to be renewed through the Ministry of the Interior. We got back to school with zero ink having touched our fingers and some massive confusion about what was going on. The bottom line was that I had wasted an entire morning and that I would have to miss another in the foreseeable future for the actual fingerprinting.

Heather, who has needed her visa renewed by the Ministry for about a month now, went to our HR rep to ask when she and I would be shipped off to the ministry. The next day, apparently, but they didn’t need our passports, just the paperwork. They will, I predicted.

Sure enough, the next day, we got an email asking us to bring in our passports on Saturday. Boy, can I call it. I really like that I know more about the residency system than those being paid to look into it. I took both of our passports in to school on Saturday. The guy asked me some random questions, handed back the passports and said to bring them back today (Monday). What was wrong with Saturday again?

Ah, Jordan bureaucracy. How you make my blood pressure rise.

Friday, October 23, 2009

A Quick, Little Note

Dear Taxi Cab Drivers of Amman,

This note does not apply to the majority of you, who are nice, honest, albeit sometimes creepy citizens. However, I've had a run of bad eggs lately that make me think a reprimand is in order. And because I do not have the linguistic skills to say this to you in person, a pointless complaint session on my blog will have to do.

We are American. This does not mean we are stupid. We have lived here for months. We know how much it costs to get to different parts of the city. Do not go a different direction that will cost more money. We will know. Do not speed up your meter. Again, we will know. Do not try to tell us that it is double after midnight. We know it is not.

Doing these things will result in us giving you less money than you seem to think you are entitled to. Do not yell insults at us through the car window; you were the one who tried to rip us off first.

That is all.

Sincerely,

Gretchen

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Wow, do I miss lazy days

We got a bonus three-day weekend because, guess why, a marathon was running through Jabal Amman (where I work), and they didn't think we'd be able to get to school. How cool is that?

But now I am at the end of my glorious three-day weekend of doing nothing. And it occured to me how much I miss doing nothing. Nothing is fabulous.

When you have a normal weekend, you can spend one night going out, one day resting and recuperating from going out and one day finishing the work you should have done on the first day before school.

With a split weekend, I have to go out, rest and recuperate AND finish all my work in a day and a half. It's just not practical.

Therefore, I took the occasion of having this bonus three-day weekend to do nothing. Absolutely nothing. Glorious. I can't wait to do nothing again, possibly at around Christmas when I go home to America, the home of nothing. Lovely.

In other news, one of my classes has been canceled until next Saturday because one student contracted swine flu. Great vacation for the rest of the class (and for me because I have 29 less papers to grade!). Not so great of a vacation for the poor swine, I mean student. Let's hope teachers are like moms, in that they can't catch diseases from their kids.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Gretchen makes a great impression on the maintenance people yet again.

If you'll remember, last time we had maintenance people in our house, I managed to misunderstand them AND ignore them according to the Arabic laws of hospitality. This time, I'm fairly sure I surpassed my last bout of ignorance and rudeness.

A worker was supposed to come over at 10 a.m. to fix a drip in our bathroom and a toilet leak in my roommate's bathroom. A guy is coming tomorrow to fix our stove. Heather, who cleverly went to bed at 10 p.m. last night, was supposed to be up to let the water guy in and converse with him, while I, who went to bed at 2 a.m. after cavorting around the city, slept.

At 9:40 this morning, the doorbell rang. I heard it and rolled over. Heather will get it, I thought. Nope. It sounded again. I blearily sat up and put my Japanese yukata on over my tiny pajama shorts so as not to scare and/or incite the natives. As I rubbed sleep out of my eyes, it occurred to me that I wasn't sure if this was water guy or stove guy. So I opened the door. "Marrhaba," I said politely. I wanted to say, "Are you the kind gentlemen who will be fixing the leak in our water closet this fine morning?" Instead, all I could come up with in Arabic was, "Fi my mushkala?" (There is water problem?) I also grinned hysterically.

The guy took one look at me and headed into the kitchen to figure out for himself what he was supposed to do. "Um," I said, showing off my impressive vocabulary in the morning. "The leak is in the bathroom?" He smiled, nodded and ignored me. Ok. I frantically texted Heather, who told me she was at the shops by our house and would be home shortly, inshallah. I continued wandering aimless around our dining room. Just as the guy started questioning me in extremely mumbled Arabic, our doorbell rang again. It was our guard, who speaks less English than I do Arabic, which is pretty amazing in itself. He went to the kitchen and began doing whatever it was that the guy had just asked me to help him with.

I thought the kitchen would take awhile, so I decided to brush my teeth. I was right in the middle of vigorously brushing, with toothpaste foam dripping out of my mouth, when the two guys showed up at the bathroom door to fix the leak in the sink. I stared at them wide-eyed for half a second, toothpaste steadily dripping from my mouth to the sink, and then gave a muffled, "Hello." There was nothing for it. With my audience watching, I spit the toothpaste into the sink and left the bathroom. "These Americans are so nutty," I'm sure the guys were saying as I exited, "and they sure don't know how to dress themselves."

Fortunately Heather arrived soon after and was able to take of the roll of hostess, which she did much better than I did. She spoke to them in much better Arabic and even offered tea, while I sulked on the couch and tried to stay out of the way.

I really must work on my people skills before the stove guy comes over tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Yes, My Job Involves Making Kids Cry

The last two weeks have been absolutely crazy for most of my school friends and me. We've been grading out the wazoo, and I spent all yesterday morning creating report cards for all fifty of my support girls. I haven't had time to do the usual lesson plans that my weeks involve, and I'm just now starting to get into the swing of being a support teacher.

But none of those things made me feel as bad as handing back the report cards from the first assessment today. In the span of three one-hour lessons, I got to see at least fifteen girls burst into tears over the results of their first tests.

I absolutely hate making people feel bad. I would much rather encourage them continuously than make them cry. But there's no doubt that a good, swift kick in the butt also encourages girls to try harder.

Now I have the results to back up my advice to study harder and pay attention during class. I can speak more frankly to these girls because I have their tests as backup to make them listen to me. I am also motivated to try to help these girls even more, so I don't have to watch them crying over the next test.

And on the other hand, it felt great to watch the two girls that burst into tears during class because they did so WELL on the tests. I especially couldn't help grinning when my "little moon," who I don't think has ever come in top, starting crying because she got the second highest score on the writing test. That right there, having the girls get it and be excited about it, makes teaching English worthwhile for me. I gave out LOTS of hugs today, both congratulations and condolences.

Note to self: start adapting to the roller coaster of emotions that is teaching. Also, get some sleep.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Best of Eid - Aqaba

The last stop on my fun-filled vacation was Aqaba, a beach town in south Jordan right on the Red Sea. Aqaba is a famous sight for snorkeling and diving. We stayed at a fun hostel directly across the street from a public beach just south of Aqaba. Our room was small, but at least it didn't have a bathroom door or shower curtain. Wait, what? No, I kid you not, our room had no door on the bathroom. Super fun.

The other uber pleasant part of our hostel experience was the amount of attention I got from the owner of the establishment. On our first day, he took drove us into town. I'm fairly sure his eyes were on me more than on the road. After telling me several times how beautiful my eyes and I were, he commenced calling me his "queen" for the duration of my stay. This I could deal with, but he started opening doors for me constantly and making me sit in the front seats of cars, a big no-no for girls in Jordan. He also asked my friend some detailed questions about my love life, which my friend was kind enough to lie about.

Our first day there, we journeyed across the street to the public beach, where we encountered families frolicking happily in the waves - in full headscarves and burqas. Wet, that. I immediately became the most undressed woman there, in a tankini, and thus became the center of attention for most of the gentlemen present. That night we moseyed into the city of Aqaba, where we ate dinner and watched two boys taking their camel for an after-dinner stroll. A'adi. It's normal.

The next day we went to the Royal Diving club, where we snorkeled like crazy and slept in the sun. The last day, we slept until 11 a.m., took a fabulous snorkeling trip around a sunken ship, then chilled in the Bedouin tent by the swimming pool at the hostel. Excellent relaxation.

My other famous creepy guy story from this trip happened on the first night. We had gone to a club, and the owner/manager/some guy with influence in the club asked my friend (not me) if he could dance with me. I was holding a beer and danced with the guy only using one hand. It was not a sexy dance. I declined another dance and ran away immediately following. But I guess in Jordanian guy talk, that means, "Come and get me, big fellow."

Shortly after, I wandered to the bathroom. The guy followed me. I came out of the stall to find him trying to press his number on me. I told him I wasn't interested. "You don't want me?" he said, astonished. Shockingly, no, I didn't want him. He then asked me what I was worth. Fantastically nice guy, this one. He continued to barrage me with propositions until I broke down and told him I was married to the male friend I was with. He apologized profusely, then took my hand and began kissing it in remorse, I guess. Fortunately my new husband called me at just that moment and I was able to escape out of the bathroom without further incident.

Traveling with me is always an adventure.

Best of Eid - Dead Sea

Two days after the trip north, a couple of us drove the extremely short 40 minutes to the Dead Sea. Unless you've been living under a rock your entire life (or possibly America), you'll know that the Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth. It divides Jordan from the West Bank and Israel.

The Islamic legend is that the Dead Sea was what used to be the city in which the Prophet Lot lived, called Sodom in the Christian bible. God wished to rain fire and brimstone upon the people in Sodom for their acts of wickedness and sexual deviance. Lot and his family were spared (except Lot's wife who was turned into a pillar of salt while escaping from the city). The angel Gabriel raised the city and threw it back to earth upside down, thus creating the lowest place on earth. Also, I heard a rumor that the salt in the sea is from all the people turned to salt before the raining brimstone. Cheery.

But it is true that the Dead Sea has one of the highest salt contents in the world, at more than 30 percent salinity. For this reason, it is possible to become a champion floater in a matter of seconds and is, in fact, actually difficult to swim or do anything but float around like a turtle on it's back.

But floating and salinity aren't what drive the millions upon millions of tourists to the Dead Sea each year. It's the fabulous resorts and high-class spas that do that.

We only made our Dead Sea getaway a day trip, so we did not get to experience the luxury of staying at a room there. But we did get to dip in fantastic pools, lie in the sun drinking beers and fresh juice (I've heard it's much harder to burn at the Dead Sea because of the distance from the sun and from the high salt content in the air), and enjoy the awkward yet pleasant sensation of being stuck in a horizontal position in the Dead Sea. We also did the ever-so-popular mud smearing at the beach. Apparently the mud at the Dead Sea is all kinds of beneficial.

Then at the end of the day, we got to see a beautiful sunset from the porch of the Movenpick and watch the twinkling lights of the West Bank. So peaceful.

Best of Eid - Um Qais

After Jerash, we went to Ajloun Castle, then headed even more north to Um Qais, another ruins sight and overlook of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus reportedly walked on water.

I personally preferred Um Qais because the weather was cooling off by then and the colors of the stones were just magnificent. It was also fun to engage in spontaneous religious discussions with my friends and contemplate trying out the walking-on-water thing in the Sea of Gaililee.


Best of Eid - Jerash

This is a long time coming, but here's a brief summary of my excursions during my oh-so-welcome nine day holiday for Eid, the end of Ramadan. You'll remember my previous blog post about driving in the utter madness that is Jordan traffic? Well the REASON I rented a car and aggressively swerved through traffic was so we could take a trip up north to visit the city of Jerash.

Jerash is most famous for the ruins still standing in the city center. They are the most well-preserved and numerous remnants of Jordan under Roman rule still left in the country.

We drove through the back-to-back traffic jam that comprised the marketplace right next to the ruins in Jerash, then parked on a street filled with chicken shops. Lucky me. We headed over to the ruins of the baths (above), then headed toward the main entrance.

We found it, then had to hike for about ten minutes toward Hadrian's Arch to where you by the tickets. We couldn't find it, walked back to the visitor's center, then walked the ten minutes BACK to Hadrian's Arch to find the unobtrusive little ticket booth nestled in a souvenir shop.

We moseyed through the park, stopping occasionally to pose as various relevant gods and goddesses (I wanted to be Dionysus, but tragically he's a god, not a goddess. Apparently I have gender issues as well.). We ended our extremely hot tour at the amphitheater (left).

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Fi Mushkala Kabeer m3 Baab!

Well since I'm up...

I drifted off into a comfortable sleep at about midnight this morning. At about 1:15 a.m., I heard a weird banging noise coming from outside my room. "What is that stupid cat doing," I sleepily thought to myself. I pulled myself out of bed and stuck my head into the hallway to find Sine.

"Gretchen?" I heard Heather say from inside her room. "Could you try to open my door for me?" She was rather frantically pulling on the door and rustling with her key. So THAT's where the noises were coming from. I joined her futile attempts.

Apparently, when she had locked it from the inside, the lock had jammed in the door and would not unlock. To make matters worse, Heather REALLY had to go pee. We continued shaking the handle and pushing the door with little success. Heather then tried to pass the key under the door to me so I could try to unlock it from the outside. It got stuck under the door.

I got a spoon from the kitchen and pushed it back through to her. She stuck it through a different part of the door, and I was able to grab it. I stuck it in the lock and turned. Nope. The lock wouldn't budge. That's when we got desperate.

I tried to call the guard that lives in our apartment and speaks no English. Heather yelled Arabic words through the door that I was supposed to say to him. "Fi mushkala kabeer m3 baab! Mumkin ta'al hawn hella2?" There is big problem with door! Possible you come here now? Unfortunately he didn't answer, so I was not able to practice my emergency Arabic skills.

Our next bright idea was to try to break down the door. I thought we could bust out the wooden frame the lock settles in. Heather was all for knocking a hole in the door itself that she could climb out of. We tried the frame idea first.

This idea also gave me the opportunity to try my cop-show door-kicking-in routine. Even at 2 in the morning, I am clever enough to realize that kicking down a door in bare feet and pajama shorts is possibly not a great idea. So I tried slamming the door with my shoulder. The only result was a rather sharp pain in my shoulder. I backed up even with the kitchen door, about twenty feet away. I took a running leap toward the door and slammed into it with quite a bit of force.

Once the pain subsided, I picked myself off the floor and faced the still unmoving door. "Go try to find something blunt in the kitchen we can use as a hammer!" Heather called. Sadly, our kitchen seems to be rather devoid of blunt objects that could be used to hammer through a heavy door.

All options exhausted, we called our friend who now lives down the street from us. Happily, he was awake. I got to run down our stairs in my tiny pajama shorts and no bra to answer the door for him. He came into the apartment, grabbed the key and started turning. Between the two of them, he and Heather wiggled the door, and he exerted enough raw, manly strength to get the key turned, thus unlocking the door and setting Heather free.

Yay! We all hugged in relief. After laughing and talking, during which Heather said she had once again considered jumping out of our third-story window (I really must buy this girl a trampoline before she acts on her window-jumping urges), we told Heather she could now go to the bathroom.

Heather giggled. "I already did," she said with a laugh. Apparently, desperate and with no rescue in sight, Heather had used her trash can as a toilet. This caused me to dissolve in sleep-deprived and pain-induced giggles for the next twenty minutes of our conversation. Next time I want a roommate who's house trained! Or possibly I could just get her a litter box?

Three cheers for emergency Arabic lessons at 2 in the morning. Hella2 fi mashakil kiteer!

Now I am going to bed to see if I can get a good three hours of sleep before school tomorrow, which Heather will have to go to, seeing as she can't use the excuse "I was locked in my bedroom" any longer.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

TWO Month Anniversary

It has now been exactly two months since I landed in Amman. How time flies when you are frantically adjusting to a new culture, avoiding fasting and teaching at all hours of the morning. I mean, how time flies when you are having fun.

End of Ramadan Blues... Or One of Those Colors

It has now been two weeks since the end of Ramadan. And I would just like to note how extraordinarily happy I am about this.

I can drink water in taxis, while walking down the street, in buses, everywhere.

I can munch on an apple in public.

I can sit outside and eat during sunlight hours.

I can eat lunch at any restaurant in town; I am not resigned to the one Christian restaurant we went to roughly a million times during Ramadan.

I can buy alcohol at a liquor store, all of which are now open again.

I can go to bars and clubs.

I can make it home from school through the traffic in less than an hour and a half.

Life is bliss again.

On the other hand, I AM suffering from Ramadan-sweets withdraw. Oh well. Nothing is perfect.

Dirty Looks are Still Better Than Dirty Needles

This morning, on my day off (and the one day I get to sleep in, I might add), I had to be at school at 9 a.m. to go with a group to get a blood test for my hopefully future residency card (which may or may not take another year to get; the bureaucracy here is not what anyone would call prompt).

I staggered out of bed at 8:10 a.m. and wandered out the door by 8:40 a.m. I caught a taxi in no time. Little did I know it was the only shy taxi driver in Amman who actually goes the speed limit. I rushed up to the school at 9:07 a.m., worried that they had left without me. There, I found my school friend and another guy waiting around and unsure about what was going on. The usual. I shouldn't have worried.

After another ten or fifteen minutes of phone calls and waiting around, we finally found the bus driver who had been coerced into driving us all to the Health Center.

We hopped off the bus and followed our enthusiastic and fortunately Arabic-speaking (but not English-speaking... that caused some problems) bus driver to the clinic, a massive building with roughly fifty guys milling around in various semblances of lines. My friend and I, both in tank tops, quickly became the star attraction in the area. We crossed our arms and looked apprehensively at the huge line of men stretching beyond the building.

Happily, it was not the line for the blood test. Our bus driver finished negotiating with our passports and herded us up some stairs to a tiny room.

Let me pause for a moment. In America when I have to get blood drawn, they take you into a specially prepared metal room with a nice chair you can lie back in. The nurse comes in, calms you down a little bit (well, at least for me they calm me down. I heartily dislike needles and my blood being anywhere but in my body), shows you all of the cleaned and packaged equipment she will use and eventually blood will be gently removed from your arm, usually with a comforting story or some other distraction.

This room looked more like a classroom than a doctor's office. There were two desks set up across from a row of dingy waiting-room chairs. The woman taking the blood had an array of supplies set up on the desk in front of her and was in civilian clothes. Filled blood tubes sat stickily to the side of the desk. It was not exactly the comforting environment I had in mind. I had also been warned that these government clinics don't even change their gloves between customers.

The three of us huddled in the corner in trepidation, cracking nervous jokes and trying not to think about the general lack of sterility in the place we were soon going to stabbed. Much too soon, I heard them call, "Christine!" Whew, I thought. A few minute reprieve. But no, they were all staring at us. And my friends' names are Maya and Paul. So that could only mean... "Christine Marie!" Crap.

"It's Gretchen," I snapped nervously. Eminent pain makes me testy. I approached the desk. She had the needle ready. "Can you change your gloves?" I asked, in what I thought was a polite, albeit tension-filled voice. She glared at me as if this was completely unreasonable but pulled on some new gloves. "And that's a new needle, right?" Gritting her teeth, she threw away the needle in front of her (which in all likelihood she had taken out of a new package while I was hiding in the corner) and pulled out a new needle still in its package so I could see it. It's extremely possible I was acting like a total snot at this point, but I can live with perceived snottiness. I can not, however, live with contracting hepatitis. And in my defense, I'm a huge baby when it comes to shots.

She dabbed a minuscule (what, like there's a shortage?) dab of rubbing alcohol on my arm (thank goodness. That eensy trickle will make all the difference to decontamination), and I stared across the room at Maya, who was dancing for my enjoyment. Then it was done, and I was handed a shred of cotton, which took roughly ten seconds to soak with blood. I shakily staggered back to the corner and mopped the blood off my arm.

Afterward, we were back outside waiting for the last member of our group, who showed up later, to finish her test. My fellow blood testers thanked me for demanding a change of gloves because the nurse used the same gloves with them. At least they can only catch what I've got (a cold?). But when my last friend came downstairs, she said she had NOT been snotty enough to ask for new gloves. And the nurse had been talking on a cell phone seconds before sticking a needle in my friend's arm. Does anyone else realize how many germs are on a cell phone?

In the nurse's defense, it hadn't hurt that much really. Residency, here I come! Hopefully remaining hepatitis free.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Who Needs Turn Signals Anyway?

On the Saturday before Eid started, a group of us decided to go on a trip to North Jordan to see Jerash, a city with the most roman ruins, Ajloun, which has an ancient desert castle, and Um Qais, another ruins sight with a great view of the Sea of Galilee. However, none of these places are within walking distance. This meant we needed a car. It also meant one of us ex-pats was going to have to drive in the madness that is Jordan traffic. Mostly because I'm missing a few brain cells, I volunteered.

The day before our trip, we stopped by a rental car office and strenuously negotiated a car for one day. They let us drive it off the lot. We had no car insurance whatsoever, and (don't tell them this) but I was driving with an expired Texas license because I haven't received my new one in the mail yet. Fortunately they couldn't read English very well in the shop, and dates go DAY/MONTH/YEAR instead of MONTH/DAY/YEAR like in America, so we had all kinds of confusion going for us. Regardless and contrary to popular judgment calls, they let me rent a car.

Let me explain something. Although several of my American friends will disagree, I am actually a very good driver. I accelerate fast, and I break late, but unlike my brother (who always gets to drive my Dad's when Dad won't let me), I have never had an accident. I have also driven in foreign countries before: France and Ireland. Ireland was tricky because of that whole wrong-side-of-the-road thing. France was tricky because the two-way roads are all roughly the width of half your car. Jordan is tricky because, once again, everyone drives like a maniac. So it was with some degree of trepidation that I slid behind the wheel. Driving out of town on highways is one thing. Driving in the heart of Amman, with disorganized traffic circles and crazed, fasting drivers is another.

My first hurdle was driving on to the street and around the corner to the gas station. However, a large van was parked (illegally in the US, completely normally for Jordan) in the middle of the road to my left, so I couldn't see anything. I gritted my teeth, gripped the wheel and made a Hail-Mary turn out on to the road.

We made it. I zipped out into Jordanian traffic, swung around the under the road and missed the turn to the gas station. Fortunately there was another road we could take back to it just beyond. I pulled in, the guys ripped us off while pumping gas, we went back and gave them a talking to, and our first car-owning challenge was met.

And I drove home. It wasn't really that bad. Sure, it required about a thousand times the concentration that driving in America requires, and I had to remember to curb my natural impulses to use turn signals, stay in lanes and be nice to people. But it turns out I'm pretty good at turning up my road aggression and swerving around other cars.

The trip north was extremely uneventful, car wise, besides the stares and ill-disguised astonishment that a woman was driving (the north is more conservative than Amman). In fact, I was driving and my female friend was in the passenger seat while the two guys sat in the back. That must have blown their minds.

I was following another friend of mine in his car, so all I had to do was keep on his tail. That was easy on the highway. In the evening, however, we had to head back into Amman to return the car. It had rained for about five seconds that afternoon, which did not wash the car; it merely turned all the dust into mud. Funnily enough, my windowshield wipers worked about as well as our stove does at home (not very), and soon I was staring out of a smeared concoction of glass, dirt and mud trying to stay just behind my friend’s taillights. Then we entered the city.

The traffic went from three or four other cars on the road, to every car in Amman trying to merge in front of me. Cars were passing a centimeter from my car, going 80 mph. I was swerving, cutting people off, passing people by centimeters myself as I tried in vain to stay directly behind my friend. We entered a traffic circle, one of the most annoying and disorganized parts of Jordanian traffic, and that’s when the rental place decided to call and ask where their car was.

So I’m frantically trying to keep my friend’s car in sight while negotiating around eight cars trying to merge into me from different directions, while driving around a traffic circle, while listening to a man yell at me in broken English. I was not a happy camper.

We made it to the rental place. I parked, calmly got out of the car and suffered a complete mental meltdown. As in, my brain was mush. I literally was so tired from concentrating that hard that I could not form complete sentences.

So all-in-all, my first driving experience was a success.

Apologies

First of all, I want to apologize for my break from blogging over the past two weeks. I was too busy frolicking and having fun over Eid, and immediately after Eid I got sick. So it was all kinds of tiring just to do my job while coughing up a lung. Now, however, I am much better and actually have, well not FREE time, but time I can devote to blogging again.

So off we go!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Kids (and Foreigners) Say the Darnedest Things

Besides the hugs, the best part of teaching is hearing the cute things kids say. Since telling the girls I'm from America, I've been regaled by stories of every time they've ever been in or even heard of America, asked if I know every relative they have living in America (I don't) and treated to all of their plans about eventually visiting every sight in America. Also, since they discovered I love cats, I've also heard about every cat each one of them has ever owned.

In addition to the stories, the girls also just say the darnedest things. I was discussing the common writing mistakes the girls made on their latest assignment when one of the girls raised her hand. "Ok, two things," she said. "One, (something about the lesson that I forgot in lieu of her second comment). Two, your tag is out." Thanks.

Heather told me that, after wearing the same skirt three days in a row, she was asked, "Teacher, why do you always wear the same skirt?" I told her an appropriate response would have been, "Why are you always wearing the same uniform?" I guess we'll really have to work on our wardrobes if we want to impress these little nine year olds.

While grading essays, I find all kinds of fun mistakes. My favorite was: instead of writing, "I was frightened when I saw the TV announcement about the hurricane approaching," one girl wrote, "I was frightened when I saw the TV approaching." I couldn't agree more. Personally, I get super freaked out when I see that TV creeping toward me.

And it's not just the students. Today I spent the majority of the morning rewriting the rather embarrassing English that plagued the Ahliyyah School's Web site (My revisions should be up for viewing soon. I'll let you know). One paragraph said, "The homeroom teachers monitor the students’ growth and teach them..." The next paragraph said, "Homeroom teachers for grades 4,5 and 6 overlook students’ growth but..." Overlook. Oversee. Same word, right? (P.S. "Oversee" means "to monitor." "Overlook" means "to ignore.") Teachers, we've decided to overlook student growth today. It's not that important, is it? Don't really need it.

One problem though. If I thought I had an annoying habit of correcting everyone's English BEFORE I became a teacher, just wait until I've done it for a solid year.

A Day in the Life 2

I have now successfully completed my third official week as a teacher. I'm surprised to find, despite my natural inclination to dislike children, that I am enjoying myself immensely. Well, not so much the getting up at 6 in the morning part, but everything else.

My morning starts at 5:40 a.m., when I sluggishly crawl out of bed to flip the switch for the hot water, so it can heat up for twenty minutes before my shower. I then collapse back into bed and hit snooze. I hit snooze twice more and always manage to drag myself out of bed the second Heather jumps in the shower. Brilliant. So I normally pass the time eating breakfast and reading. Then Heather and I sleepily mumble good mornings to each other (El 7amdoLella [thanks to God] neither of us are morning people), and I jump in the shower. At about 7:15 a.m., if we are really lucky, we jump in a cab and head to school. Actually, I lie. That time is getting pushed back every day as we get lazier and lazier. But we try hard.

We get to school between 7:30 a.m. and 7:45 a.m. Then we sign in. Sometimes. On most days, we have back to back block lessons and one hour free at different times of the day. During my breaks, I can usually be found camped out in the way-overcrowded staff room either frantically grading writing assignments or reading a book. An extremely sweet elderly lady provides coffee, tea, hot water and za'atar sandwiches for us. She is my new best friend.

As for the lessons themselves, I usually wander around the back of the room and wait for Leen to finish the main lesson, so I can begin helping the girls that might need a little more explanation. Sometimes they don't need me at all. Most of the time, however, once they start working in groups or individually, I am overwhelmed with cries of "Ms. Gretchen, Ms. Gretchen," accompanied more often than not by tugs on my hands, arms, elbows and various other body parts. The hardest things to do are keeping track of who I help and finding time to get everyone the help they need. And I thought these girls would be shy!

I really love my students. They are bright, motivated, inquisitive and above all, absolutely adorable, which is why I have not killed every one of them on the days when they just refuse to shut up. I think it's nature's defense mechanism to make sure the species is repopulated: make the kids really cute.

Most of the time, Leen is in charge of class discipline. But on the occasions when I teach the class, that task falls to me. My background is overwhelmingly writing and grammar oriented, so we decided that I would teach all of the writing lessons in the curriculum. I also teach when Leen is tired, or when she isn't there, or whenever she or I feel like it. My discipline strategy so far is to yell "GIRLS" really loudly when they won't listen, though I am considering yelling variations on "OY," "YOU THERE," and "SHUT UP." Actually, my latest brainwave is to turn off the lights and glare until the room quiets down. I'll let you know how that goes for me.

Where's the Fire?

On the bottom floor of our apartment, actually.

Two nights ago, I got up from my daily nap and headed off toward my 6 p.m. Arabic lesson. At about 7:15 p.m., I started receiving frantic calls from my flatmate. I smiled apologetically at my teacher and turned my phone to silent.

At 7:30 p.m. I called Heather back. Here was her story:

She had gotten up from her nap just after me and had started working on her computer. After about half an hour, the power in the apartment went off. The electrical current in Jordan isn't quite as reliable as that in the U.S. (and my previous roommate and I experienced quite a few outlets even in Missouri), so she wasn't really that alarmed. Then she smelled the smoke.

She opened the door leading down the stairs to the front door. It was pitch black, and smoke was rolling up the stairs in waves. Starting to panic, she closed the door again and raced to our balcony. Once there, she cleverly decided that jumping three stories to the ground was possibly not her best option, even while in a burning building, and she turned back to the stairs. She wrenched open the door and, using her cell phone as a light, ran cautiously down the sooty steps.

Once outside, she was met by one of the guys from next door and a herd of our other neighbors. The fire department had been notified and arrived within three minutes of being called. However, the building has no fire alarm, and I guess in Jordan no one thinks to inform residents that their building is burning. Ah well. I guess it's one of those thing you have to figure out for yourself, like breathing or one of those trivial things.

It turns out that an apartment on the first floor of the building had caught fire from an electrical problem in one of the bedrooms. Fortunately, the family living there had vacated the apartment earlier that day, so no one nor their possessions were hurt. The fire was contained within the apartment, and no structural damage occurred on the building. Heather said it was fairly impressive to see the flames shooting out the apartment window, however, and the ceiling above that apartment door is stained black now. On the other hand, I guess if you are going to have an apartment fire, this is the way to do it.

Heather and our friend came to my Arabic class to pick me up. We went out to dinner to give the smoke that raced up the stairs and through our open front door a chance to clear out. When we got back to the apartment, it smelled a bit like really burnt chicken, but all in all was not as bad as we expected. Tragically, the smoke had stirred up some of our massive resident cockroaches, which I was obliged to get our friend to kill before he left. I Febreezed the place down within an inch of its life and decided to call it a day. That's when I noticed that my feet, while usually in a fairly advanced stage of dirty, had become what could only be called filthy. As in dipped in black ink filthy. Ah. Yes. Smoke turns into soot. Joy.

I consequently spent the next hour or so cleaning every flat surface in the house. Then I did it again, because one rub does not get out soot. Two days later, however, I still cannot walk barefoot in the house without getting black feet. I guess it's time for another cleaning, which I will gladly do. Because it's so true that this story could have been much MUCH worse.

I knew those Arabic lessons were a good idea.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

My first ride with a DWF: Driving While Fasting

Tonight I was going down to meet some friends in Jabal Amman, a part of town about 20 minutes away from our house in Deheit al Rasheed. I had told them to meet at about 7:15 p.m. because iftar would have started and the roads would be clear. I didn't take into account the fact that taxi drivers would also be off the roads and eating at this time.

I stood on the road for about five minutes desperately trying to flag down a taxi. I saw lots of full ones and was ignored by several empty ones. Just as I was about to theatrically give up, one pulled over to the side, and two guys got out. But the guy in the front seat remained in the taxi, so I turned my attention back to other taxis. To my surprise, the occupied taxi pulled up next to me, and the driver asked where I wanted to go.

I was caught so unaware that I forgot to speak in Arabic. No matter. He understood Jabal Amman and motioned me into the cab while babbling rapidly and gesturing to the other fellow. From his miming, I understood that he wanted to drop off the man and then take me to Jabal Amman. Hm. Strange. I looked at the other guy (who stared at me blankly), shrugged and got in. We drove for about five minutes, then the other guy got out. I heard the call to prayer that marks the beginning of iftar. The last notes died away, and my driver was already two puffs into his breaking-the-fast cigarette.

After a couple blocks and a couple questions asked in Arabic (which I am proud to say I understood, even if I didn't know how to answer), such as "Is this your first time in Jordan?" "What do you do here?" and the ever popular "Are you married?," he asked if I minded if he stopped and got a coffee. I had heard of cab drivers doing this, and I wasn't really in a hurry, so I said I didn't mind. He offered me a coffee, which I declined, then hurried off. I waited a couple minutes in the cab, and he was back, this time dividing his attention between his third cigarette, his coffee and occasionally the road.

As we drove toward Jabal Amman, I saw one of the few car accidents I have ever seen in Jordan despite the crazy driving. "Tsk," my driver said. They have accidents because they are all rushing home to eat, he said distainfully in Arabic, which I understood because of the fabulous miming he performed. He took a drag of his cigarette and sucked down a gulp of coffee as he sped through one of the many optional red lights in Amman, barely missing a silver car as he rushed past.

Friday, September 11, 2009

My Arabic Confusion 2

Four days ago, a fellow teacher at the school mentioned that she had forgotten to sign in and walked into the administration office. "Sign in?" I thought. "We have to sign in? Nah. I've worked here for a week and a half; they would have told us if we had to... Oh." Yes, it turns out we are supposed to sign in when we arrive at school every morning. Once again, you have to love the communication in this country.

Regardless, I followed my fellow teacher into the administration office and found my name, one of the few names that uses the English alphabet (the entire form was in Arabic). I glanced at the names above and below mine and saw that they had written what looked like their name then initials in the box next to it. I did the same.

I forgot to sign in the day after. Yesterday, when I remembered and went to sign in, I took a closer look at the "initials" people were writing after their names. There appeared to be quite a few people whose names started with V. In fact, everyone's name started with V. That can't be right...

Suddenly I realized. It wasn't a V. It was a saba, the Arabic number for seven (It looks like a V). Everyone was getting in at 7 something in the morning and writing the time down. It was a forehead smacking moment.

So for the first time in two weeks of working there, I actually filled out the sign in sheet with the correct information. Wow. And these people are relying on me to educate their students. We are all in an awful lot of trouble.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Personal Essay about Assumptions and Being the Stupid Kid

I would like to post a personal essay I wrote for my Advanced Writing class at the University of Missouri. It was never published anywhere else, so I thought I would take the self-publishing route.

The essay is about what it is like to be a foreigner who doesn't speak the language, who everyone thinks is not as intelligent because he or she can't express his or herself. It's also about how easy it is to judge people as less intelligent because of their communication skills and the struggle I face in basing intellect on speech. Warning: It's a bit long.

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You’re sitting there in a classroom. It might be warm outside, or maybe you just didn’t get enough sleep last night. Whatever the reason, you find yourself drifting off during the lecture. Suddenly the room is silent. You snap awake from whatever rainbow daydream you were having. The professor is glaring at you and waiting for the answer. Crap. You never heard the question.

You stare back like a deer in the headlights and know that no matter what you do, you are going to look like an inattentive idiot.

I’ve been there too. But I heard the question. I just couldn’t understand it.

Six years ago, my family moved to France for a semester. I had taken two years of French and learned a host of language-class words that were next to useless against the rapid-fire French I encountered during my first day of school in Poitiers, a city in Western France. My professor started with the typical first-day-of-class lecture on who knows what. Then, roll call. I prepared to listen for any mutilated variation of my name, but he wasn’t just calling names. He was asking questions too. Oh merde.

The daydream scenario started all over again, only this wasn’t any dream I wanted to have. Chills started up my back. My chest tightened. My forehead broke out in a cold sweat as I waited for the noose to tighten around my neck. After a million years but also much too soon, he called my name. I shakily raised my hand, hoping for a reprieve, an earthquake, the ground to swallow me up. No luck.

His unnecessarily rapid questions shot over my comprehension level like machine gun fire as I scrunched down in my desk and formed as small a target as possible. I stared up at him in terror. He stared back and started speaking a nanosecond slower. Still couldn’t catch it. “Professeur, je suis Americaine,” I choked out. “Je ne parle pas françias.” I don’t speak French. That should do it.

Americaine?” Looking interested, he fired off more unintelligible French. This guy was not getting the message. I looked around helplessly, silently begging for help. The students started tittering. Small giggles broke the silence of my non-response. “Oui?” I ventured. Louder chuckles now. I winced.

The professor finally took pity on me and moved on to torment another victim. The students continued staring at me. I sighed in resignation. For the first time in my life, I was the stupid kid in class.

To my continuous embarrassment, I learned quality of speech is directly related to perceived intelligence. Being unable to communicate equals dumb or uneducated, even if such snap judgments are completely unconscious. Take my mother, for example. She volunteered as an administrative assistant while we were in France. Unfortunately, she spoke virtually no French (I was Victor Hugo by comparison) and struggled with the students. Once, my mom mentioned that in the U.S. she did the job of the head administrator. The student stared at her in surprise. “You know, I’m smart back in America,” my mom said.

That student isn’t the only one. Even after all my experience being the “other,” I still assume foreigners need extra help if they can’t speak my language well. I knew a Chinese woman in Texas. I over-explained details any adult should know and unknowingly patronized her because to me she spoke English like a child. I talked for her and shielded her from potential embarrassment, never mind that she was a 35 year old who knew much more than me.

But sometimes the child idea works. While speaking French, if I couldn’t understand something, I asked people to talk to me like a child, so they would use slow, simple words. But people not only adjust their words, they adjust their entire mindset to a lower standard of thinking. They tend to speak to those around the child instead of trying to communicate directly. Believe me, 17 year olds appreciate being addressed as a child even less than 35 year olds do.

Even people with accents can give an uneducated impression. I’m from Texas. I’ve listened to and winced at my share of “howdys,” “y’alls” and “fixin’ tas,” yet those words tend to slip out of my mouth after I’ve had one too many margaritas.

And how about those cheerleaders and that “valley-girl” talk? Girls, like, are labeled dumb blondes because of a speech habit they, like, picked up or whatever. Also consider the dialect of some African Americans. In the movie Bringing Down the House, Steve Martin is lamenting the way Queen Latifah speaks by saying she could sound smarter if she spoke “normally.” This is who I am, she replies.

These accents and dialects help people identify with social communities. People absorb speech habits easily; it becomes part of a group identity. So sometimes it’s not the accents but an unconscious opinion about a group of people that creates the uneducated impression.

I had my fun mocking Larry the Cable Guy for the redneck accent he uses in his comedy routine. Then I heard him speak without his accent, and he sounded exactly like me. Whoops. I realized Larry was not dumb; he was clever enough to capitalize on an accent that helped him connect with people but was over-the-top enough to be funny.

The ironic thing is that foreigners have to be pretty darn clever to survive in a foreign language as well. I had to keep my wits about me when performing the simplest task in France. Need a haircut? How do you say “layers” in French? And don’t even think about ordering a pizza. A person can only hear you say “pardon?” a few dozen times before the urge to sigh heavily and hang up kicks in.

At the end of my memorable class in France, the students completed information forms. Piece of cake, if you know French. After five minutes with my dictionary, I was only a quarter done. I panicked, because those show-off French students were done, and the professor was looking vaguely impatient about leaving the classroom.

Then suddenly I heard it. English. The most beautiful language in the world to me at that second. “You’re American, right? Do you need help?” “Yes,” I said frantically to my fellow student. I wanted to speak in English more than ever before, not only to quickly finish the forms, but to show just one person in my class I was not as stupid as I seemed.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Mensef Story

This past Saturday, Heather and I were invited to Zerka for a traditional mensef iftar with a friend's family. After our longer-than-average first parents' meeting at the school, the guys picked us up in Jabal Amman, we hopped in the backseat like good little Jordanian girls, and we headed for Zerka, about a twenty minute drive outside of Amman if the traffic is good.

The traffic was not good. It took us maybe an hour. But it gave us plently of time to enjoy the scenery and sounds of Amman, such as the bumper to bumper cars, the honking of drivers crazed on road rage doubled by fasting all day, and masses of people snarling at each other as they rush around getting ready for iftar. Ah! The best time of day!

Zerka used to sit around a river, which made it the more popular city to live in. But once the river dried up, its citizens began fleeing to the slightly cooler Amman, and now the city is mostly industrial. When talking to people from Amman, they all betray the slightest bit of incredulity that there is anything to see in Zerka. They also mumble that it's slightly more dangerous than Amman, possibly because its the hometown of the notorious Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The people from Zerka retort that the Ammanians are just jealous. They didn't say what they were jealous of...

Regardless, we finally made it to the slightly grittier Zerka and pulled up at our friend's house. We met his mom, our fabulous chef for the evening, his two brothers, his brother's wife, his sister and her children. Once in the house, we settled into the living room, where our two friends laid a plastic sheet on the floor (got to put something to keep the rice out of the carpet), then set various plates of vegetables and drinks on it. Then we sat down to wait for sunset, my friend with a cigarette ready in hand.

Ding! At 7:01 p.m., we heard the call to prayer. We were four in the living room: our two friends, Heather and me. The guys said a quick "start of the iftar" prayer? chant? blessing? I'm not sure, but they said it; it was pretty; we started the feast.

Our friend poured a heavy yogurt sauce over the rice. Now, when eating mensef, the men usually use their hands. Women usually eat with spoons, but it is acceptable to eat with their hands as well. Heather and I immediately squished our fingers to the knuckle into the rice. We're classy like that. Heather, who has eaten traditional mensef before, began showing her prowess at rolling the rice into balls, then transferring the sticky bites into her mouth. Before too long, she was having a rice rolling contest with our friend. I was not so talented. Fortunately, my many years of eating Indian food with my hands came in handy, so I did not completely embarrass myself.

After washing up after the mensef, we retreated to the balcony, where we sat around and made our friend translate everything everyone said (our friend's family does not speak English. We do not speak Arabic. That makes for interesting conversations). Then we got the dessert.

Remember those pancakes Heather and I saw in early Ramadan? Getayaf. Well, tonight we got to find out what they are SUPPOSED to taste like. They were filled with a cream that tasted like chantille, topped with nuts and dipped in a sugar sauce. Delightful, and the perfect way to head straight into a sugar rush.

We ended the evening by smoking argile (shisha, hookah to you Americans) on the porch and then heading home. Ah. My first mensef. My fond memories of this night will last as long as the bits of rice stuck under my fingernails.