Saturday, August 29, 2009

My Arabic Confusion

The super fun thing about dealing with the Arabic language (even more fun than the sounds they put in there just to weed out the foreigners) is learning how to read things from right to left. When practicing Arabic, it is fairly easy to remember this one basic rule. However, even though that's a absolute tenet of Arabic society, it isn't always second nature to us ignoramuses.

My main teacher, Leen, and I received our schedules of classes earlier this week. Hers was in Arabic, as she speaks Arabic, and mine was in English for a similar reason. The papers were identical; both showed equal-sized tables with boxes labeled for each class. We were going over when we would have free time when I glanced over at her schedule. "Hold on," I said to Leen. "We don't have the same schedule. Look, you don't have free time first thing on Monday, you have it for the last two periods." Leen looks down at her schedule. "Yes, I have free time first thing on Monday," she says, pointing to the last two boxes on Monday. "Right here."

"No, that's last peri... Oh. Arabic goes from right to left."

Duh, Gretchen. But in all fairness to me, how do you reverse 24 years of reading tables left to right in three weeks, especially when I am staring at my own table that goes left to right?

To her credit, Leen did not snicker at my brain's stubborn refusal to cross cultures.

French Kissing

My first few days in France, I was introduced to the art of French kissing. No, not that French kissing, the cheek kiss they do as a way of greeting/introduction/nice-to-see-ya. This involves placing your cheek against someone else's and making a kiss sound in the air.

In Poitiers, I got used to doing one kiss on the right cheek to say hi to all my classmates every day, and two kisses for special friends, special occasions, if you were all kinds of enthusiastic about kissing someone, etc. In the south of France, especially among family friends, that number went up to three or four. Luckily, the girl just gets to wait for the guy to decide the number, so it involves no thinking or decision making regarding the social impact of going for two kisses when you only need one. Faux pas avoided. On the other hand, this also means that the girl has to be ready for any number of kisses coming her way.

Here in Jordan, they also use the kiss on the cheek as a greeting. However, I'm having quite a bit of confusion as to how many kisses to aim for. "Two," said one of the guys who lives next door, after I mistakenly tried to do the Poitiers kiss and pulled away after just one kiss (how embarrassing). One on each cheek. Ok. Sounds good. I can do that. A couple days later, I'm saying hi to some friends who stopped by the apartment. This time, I kissed both cheeks and went to pull away. The guy was still there. "Three in Amman," he insisted. What? We're going for three? Don't the natives even know how many kisses is appropriate?

So now my plan is to hover awkwardly in the general vicinity of someone's face until he is most definitely done cheek kissing me, while staring at his face avidly waiting for any sudden movements toward either of my cheeks. Embarrassment avoided.

Waiter, there's an oil spill in my food

We’re well into the month of Ramadan now, and what’s on everyone’s mind? Smoking, most likely. I have never seen so many people who smoke in one county. Europe has nothing on the Jordanians. And there are no laws about smoking in public, so people smoke EVERYWHERE, including restaurants, taxis, hospitals, etc.

But actually, I was talking about food. Food is also on everyone’s mind. And in the spirit of helping others be hungry, here are some of the foody things I’ve noticed about Jordan.

First of all, I’ve already mentioned my diet here consists of about 80 percent labneh, za’atar and pita bread, which I just found out is called khubz. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing to eat (it’s the only thing to eat at my house, but that’s another story.).

A couple of days after coming in the country, I had possibly the most popular (or at least the most talked about) dish here: mensef. Mensef is basically spiced rice with almonds and or pine nuts, lamb or chicken and a yogurt sauce. For traditional mensef, which I have not experienced yet, a humongous tray of mensef is served to the guests. The women eat it with a spoon, and the men roll it into balls to eat with their hands. I, however, experienced mensef as our waiter brought it over on a plastic plate. So close. Apparently Heather got to try some mensef cooked by my dear, sweet cousin Melissa when she stayed with her for a couple of days. Lucky girl. Maybe, if I’m good, Melissa will cook for me sometime, too.

Other than mensef, I’ve had all kinds of other traditional Arabic dishes. You already heard about the oh-so-fabulous shwarmas, conveniently located on every street but the one we live on. You can also get all kinds of fresh, delicious hummus (or hommos) with olive oil pretty much everywhere. I’ve had kebabs; a fun dish called fuul, which is mashed beans with garlic in olive oil (it’s fun because who wants to try a dish that can be spelled ful, full, fool or foul respectively?); yogurt given to me in restaurants with olive oil; and olive oil. Did I mention the food is kind of oily here? You can also get any variety of meat or chicken and rice dishes with all kinds of yogurt sauces, spices and olive oil.

Within my first few days, I also got to try the dessert favorite here, kunafa. Kunafa is an exceedingly fattening dish that has a sweet cheese sandwiched in between fried sugar with about a literal ton of ghee (fatty butter) mixed in and melted on top. Very delicious, but fortunately for my daily calorie intake, it appears that I can’t eat more than about two bites of kunafa without spending the entire night in the bathroom, which mostly deters me from indulging too much.

If I’m not inclined to saturate myself with oil that night, I have any number of popular American restaurants I can go to for an oil break and a hint of home. We’ve got all the comforts, such as Papa John’s, Fuddruckers, Applebees, TGIFridays, Bennigans, and, most exciting of all, a new Ruby Tuesday in the City Mall.

We also have experimented with cooking American food in the house. A couple of weeks ago, Heather and I cooked up a rather fabulous dinner of tomato soup (made from scratch, thank you very much. Well, from tomato paste, milk and cream anyway) and grilled cheese sandwiches. Yesterday I also managed to make the ever-so-popular cheesy macaroni (with tomato soup) that my mom always made for me when I was little.

But one thing I am really missing is my Mexican food. I’m planning to make chicken enchiladas (if I can find sour cream that is) for an iftar we’re hosting on Sunday, and Lena and I spotted an advertisement with a giant hombre in a sombrero that we think indicates a Mexican restaurant here in Amman. Must try it soon! Hope they don’t douse my chimichanga in olive oil.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

My Illegal Activity... Lemonade

Today Heather and I went down to our strip of shops to buy some groceries. Outside of the bakery, we saw a couple of guys selling something out of humongous keg-looking coolers. Heather stared at the Arabic labels for a second and figured out we had "Hindi date juice," "lemon juice," "date juice," and "banana milk."

We apparently stared at them for too long because the owner of the stand ran over and asked if we wanted to taste them. We looked at each other. Isn't that illegal? "Are we allowed to?" we asked him. "For you, it's ok," he replied. "For Muslim, no, but you..."

We looked at each other. Okay. The vendor sent his small assistant into the bakery to get what must have been the only tasting cup in the store, as it took him about 15 minutes to come back out with it.

The juice seller poured us some of the "date juice," and handed me the cup. I looked at Heather. She shrugged. I glanced around surreptitiously to see if there was a cop nearby, then I took a small sip.

I felt my teeth decay considerably on the first gulp. Man, these people drinks things sweet. One glass of tea will give you diabetes (Heather's joke, not mine). Then the vendor rustled up two more cups, and we tried the lemon juice and the banana milk, both times glancing around the street like we were getting away with something. Who knew Ramadan would make me feel like an 18 year old sneaking shots of tequila in an alley?

The lemon juice was fantastic. Just like MomMom used to make (except not out of a can). The banana milk (yes, I said banana milk) was weird. It did taste like bananas. And milk. But it wasn't sweet, and it was fairly thick to drink. Hm. Finally I tried the "Hindi date juice" (don't ask me why it was called that; I don't know). It tasted like the "date juice," but with about a hundredth of the sugar content.

We decided to go with the lemon juice.

Let's Talk Toilets

I’ve seen a lot of strange toilets in my time.

In Europe, especially France, the locals like to play a fun game called “Hide the Handle,” which is also known as “Find the Flusher.” Actually, I just made up those two games. But both titles perfectly describe many trips I took to the loo. Most of the time, the button is located conveniently on top of the toilet tank. Sometimes you push it in; sometimes you pull it out. Just for fun, however, the French occasionally like to put the handle somewhere no one can find it, such as… the floor for example. Behind the toilet perhaps. One time, I spent ten minutes searching for the flush only to give up theatrically, open the bathroom door and hear the flushing behind me.

Japan has possibly the most intricate toilets. My first time with a Japanese toilet was in the Narita airport. I completed what I went in there to do, then spent another five minutes pressing various buttons located on a panel right by my leg. Not only could that toilet flush, it could also spray you in strategic places (at different strengths, mind you), play music and even make a fake flushing sound for some reason.

Neither of our first two hotel rooms had this complex piece of technology, though our second toilet did turn the sink on when you flushed it. I didn’t use that water much; I was a bit suspicious as to where it came from. But our third hotel did boast a toilet that would do everything but light your cigarette for you, as my father used to say.

China, by far, has had the most annoying toilets. Our hotel room toilet was just fine, but roughly every other toilet in the city was what is known as a “trench toilet” or a “squatty potty.” Not super fun for girls to use, especially if you are going to be down there for any length of time. Try using a squatty potty while wearing high heels at a nightclub. Interesting… Also, the Chinese people had seemingly never heard of toilet paper. So I got to carry around loads of tissues in my purse at all times.

Now Jordan has a mix. Most are European-style toilets with fairly easy-to-find flushers (push or pull!). I have seen (and used once) a couple squatty potties, but for the most part I think I left them behind in Asia. Now what I have NOT seen is toilet paper. This wouldn’t be that surprising except that everyone puts tissues EVERYWHERE. Taxi drivers put tissue boxes in taxis. They sit unobtrusively in the corner of every dinner table. But no one thinks to supply wipers for the other end of your body.

The other fun toilet experience I’ve had in Jordan was out in the desert. Now I’m sure everyone who’s gone camping can relate to this. I went to a get-together in Wadi Musa. It was basically a dance floor set up in the middle of the desert. And the bathroom? Wander away from the campsite for a minute, pick a spot and pop a squat. Funny. They didn’t supply toilet paper there either.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Living Ramadan Vicariously through Leftovers

As I am not Muslim, I am not actively participating in this cultural celebration. But that doesn't mean I'm not affected. First of all, everyone on the road is just a little bit crankier and in more of a hurry, as they haven't smoked, drank or eaten in several hours. This added to the already fabulous driving done by most taxi drivers is enough to make anyone a little nervous when venturing out. Also, eating or drinking is now illegal in public, so no sneaking sips of water out of my water bottle unless I am safely indoors.

If that weren't weird enough for an American, a good 95 percent of all the restaurants are closed during daylight hours. No forgetting my lunch this month. A few more Western places and many expensive hotel restaurants stay open, but for the most part, it looks like it's leftovers for me. Even more inconvenient, some of the restaurants (like the used-to-be-convenient shwarma place down the block from us) close for the whole of Ramadan.

On the plus side, however, Amman is gorgeous at night. Many residents put up Ramadan lights, which look suspiciously like Christmas lights to me. Some of them are even icicle shaped. Some colored lights in festive shapes, such as moons and stars, do have a personality of their own, however. And the roads are completely empty, so it's much easier to catch a taxi or cross the road, sometimes without even looking. Another plus is that as soon as that minute hand touches the sunset minute, everyone becomes a lot more jolly. Every person I've talked to at night is all kinds of happy, from the jolly cashier in the convenience store who talked to us for a good ten minutes and was tickled pink when we told him, "Ramadan Kareem" to the happy restaurant owner who practically wouldn't let us get in a taxi he was having so much fun talking to us. If this is how fasting makes you feel, I'm all for it.

As Heather mentioned in her Ramadan post, it is also a great time to sample some of the food that only comes around during Ramadan. Two nights ago, Heather and I headed down the street to grab a shwarma for dinner only to find they had closed up shop. Undaunted, we hit the bakery. Instead of the usual bread, deserts, etc, we found pancakes. Thousands upon thousands of pancakes. Score! We grabbed a plate of them, headed home and scarfed them down with syrup. How fresh-off-the-boat of us! We found out after we ate that these pancakes, called getayaf, are supposed to be stuffed with nuts or cheese, then dipped in a sweet sauce and eaten. Ramadan social faux pas number one. Oh well. They were still good as pancakes.

And Heather and I won't totally be devoid of all the Ramadan fun. We told the guys next door that if they picked a day, we would get up at 3:30 a.m. for sahur, fast all day and eat iftar with them at night. For one day. Just to get the total Ramadan experience. Sure hope I don't need to use my inhaler that day.

You Think You Know Ramadan?

So as we ALL know, Ramadan started on August 22 this year. Well, I know this, and Heather knows this, and pretty much everyone living in the Middle East knows this. But for you people in far off, unreachable lands like the U.S., guess what! Ramadan has started.

Jordan is about 90 percent Muslim, so Ramadan is, of course, a very important part of their religious devotion. However, it also seems to be a way to connect with your country and community as well. For example, even Muslims who are not usually religious will follow Ramadan rules to the letter as a way of showing solidarity with their fellow Jordanians. And even some non-Muslims, such as my roommate Nadia, will jump in on the fun.

Ramadan is not just about giving up food. It's about self-control and is a time of reflection for most Muslims. Most people wake up at about 3:30 in the morning just before the morning prayer. In fact, in some small villages and in some parts of Amman, the communities hire people to yell in the streets when it is time to get up, sort of like a fancy town crier. They eat a small breakfast, called sahur, perform the morning prayer, and go back to sleep. Work is delayed from 8 a.m. until 9 a.m. They also get off work at about 2 p.m. instead of having to work all day. During daylight hours, practitioners must not eat, drink, smoke, take medicine or have sex. Actually, my friend said that men aren't even allowed to exchange greeting kisses-on-the-cheek with women during the day.

You may not drink alcohol at any time during Ramadan, thus all the bars and clubs are closed, as well as all the liquor stores. A woman may not fast if she is on her period, and if you cut yourself or are bleeding, you are not allowed to fast. You must make up this day later on during the year but before the next Ramadan. If you are pregnant, disabled or in some other way not able to fast, you can fulfill the religious requirements by donating food to feed the poor.

Once people finish with work, they apparently drive around like manics buying food and heading home, where they start cooking. Dinnertime varies every night. The first night of Ramadan, practitioners were allowed to begin eating/drinking/smoking at 7:18 p.m. Last night it was 7:10 p.m. It will be slightly earlier each night in Ramadan as the sun begins setting earlier. The time is recorded each day in the newspapers. At sunset, the families usually get together and eat iftar, the meal breaking the fast.

Many Muslims set their watches and light up their cigarettes with a minute to go, ready to take their first puff as the second hand hits the minute mark.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Dirty Feet and Other Hazards of the Jordan Climate

By this point in my life, I’ve experienced all kinds of weather and climate conditions. I’ve lived in France, where my hair curled up like a poodle’s and it rained every single day. I lived in China, where I had to take showers twice a day to get the humidity and pollution out of my hair, and it STILL curled up like a poodle’s. I’ve lived in Missouri, where I learned to drive on ice and appreciate air conditioning in the same city. And last but not least, I’ve spent at least a third of my life in Lubbock, Texas, where residents have never even HEARD of humidity. So needless to say, I’m used to dry. Jordan, however, is a whole new kind of dry. And with that dry heat comes a whole host of new hygiene problems I’ve never experienced before.

First of all, let’s talk feet. My feet are dirty. My feet are so dirty, in fact, that washing them only removes the first layer of grime and dust.

In China, I pretty much did nothing with my feet besides wash them, and I was fine. In Missouri, I would use a pumice stone on them maybe once a week just because I wear sandals so much. In Lubbock, I would up that number a little more, maybe scrub them with a pumice stone every few days to get the dried skin off. But in Jordan? A pumice stone is more than just a tool for removing skin. It’s intrinsic to getting the dust off your feet, even if just for as long as it takes you to wander into the rest of the house.

In addition to the pumice stone I’m using every single morning and sometimes at night, I’ve had to invest in some extra-strength foot cream to keep my feet from drying out entirely. Note: this does not make my feet soft. It merely makes sure I can’t wound anyone with sharp edges of dry skin.

Actually, my feet are doing really well right now after the spa treatment I got on my birthday, namely because the 15 layers of calluses she scraped off have not had time to rebuild themselves. Perhaps here I’ll have to make pedicures a monthly part of my beauty regime.

So my feet are dry. But the rest of my body isn’t affected at all! No no, I’m just kidding with you. My skin tends to suck up moisture like a vacuum actually. After my morning shower, my elbows are headed toward being considered dangerous weapons themselves and can easily absorb a handful of lotion. Even weirder, the skin under my chin slash right around my jaw line has been drying out lately. I think it’s because it still gets the chemicals from my face wash on it, but I don’t always hit it with the lotion that I put on my face. So now I’m also dowsing my neck in lotion.

Speaking of face wash, I’m using up that bottle like it’s going out of style. I come home at night and feel so dirty that I wash my face all the time. My shampoo and conditioner are also disappearing at ridiculously rapid speeds. The shampoo goes fast because the water pressure isn’t really high enough to spread it out through my hair; I always have to get more, and I use a literal ton of conditioner every morning because my hair is so dry. And this from the girl who usually has enough oil in her hair to start a car.

All in all, I’ve had to seriously adjust my bathroom routine just to look normal here, which is all kinds of fun. Maybe once my body adjusts, I’ll stop spending an hour getting ready every morning. But then again, why should I worry? If anyone says anything, I’ll just slice them open with my elbows.

Chocolate cake and strangers make the best birthdays

My birthday falls in a very inconvenient time of year based on the academic calender (Thanks Mom and Dad. Yeah. Really should have planned that better.). At the end of August, I've always either just left my summer spot and all the friends I've made there or just gone somewhere new and don't know anyone (though, Mom, I do apologize for making you run around pregnant and sweaty all summer. That probably wasn't any kind of fun.).

This time it was the latter - two weeks in Jordan and I've already used up my one birthday party of the year. And initially I was a little worried that I wouldn't know enough people yet to make it the swinging good time that it should be. Not to worry. My fabulous roommate Heather had it all planned out.

The day didn't start out so good, in that I had to be at school for a meeting that didn't happen at 9 a.m. I sat around for a while, as is the norm in Jordan, and did some lesson planning with my co-teacher. My morning brightened when my darling cousin and her clan showed up to wish me happy birthday. Maria and Laith (my cousin's children, for anyone reading this who doesn't have my extended family memorized) had picked out a stuffed cat to keep me company until I get back to my own adorable kitties, and my Aunt Anne brought me cards from my grandparents and herself conveniently filled with dinars instead of cash. Love my family.

They wandered off to lunch, and I played the "it's my birthday" excuse (which you can only use on your birthday, strangely enough) to get off work early and meet Heather for a mysterious outing I knew nothing about.

After getting a little lost in the taxi, we finally pulled up at a fancy spa called Kinda, which despite all evidence to the contrary is not a German daycare (Heather made the joke first; I just stole it.). Manicures and pedicures. All right!

We were lead to two comfy chairs, offered coffee and then almost immediately mobbed by three women each who were all responsible for different parts of our bodies. I had one woman for my hands and one on each foot. It was a bit like playing twister if truth be told, but boy did it make me feel spoiled. My hand woman asked what color I wanted. I requested a maroon color and ended up with blood red, but it still looked good.

The foot part was the best. After two weeks of walking around in the dust, my feet were in rather desperate need of a good, thorough cleaning. Heather and I joked that the women scraping the calluses off our feet took a good half an hour longer than normal. We kid, but not by much.

After about 45 minutes of pampering, our hands were painted and our feet were actually soft AND clean again. Incredible. Of course the clean part only lasted about five seconds out the door, but it was incredible none the less.

We then went home for me to rest a bit after my early morning. At about 6 p.m., we got ready and went out for a fancy birthday dinner: Fuddruckers. That's right, Amman does have a Fuddruckers. I spent the evening starting all my sentences with, "at the Fuddruckers in America," because poor Heather had never been to a Fuddruckers before, but it was extremely enjoyable despite the differences. Oh chicken sandwiches and fries. It was good to see you again.

After dinner we ran home and got ready to welcome our guests. By 10:30 p.m., the place was packed, mostly with people I had never seen before. All of them graciously wished me happy birthday, and one guy I didn't know even showed up with flowers. Just as I had ducked into my room to change for the club, I was called back out into the dining room, where my fabulous roommate was bringing in a REAL chocolate cake, with chocolate icing and everything. And Heather said the cake in Jordan was sub par! The guys lit some sparkler-looking candles, and everyone sang happy birthday in English followed by happy birthday in Arabic.

The cake was delicious. The people were fantastic. It was a good birthday.

Amman by Night

Here are some cool shots of Amman at night.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Trek to the Ampitheatre

Last Friday, before we both became swamped with school, lesson plans and endless meetings, Heather and I decided to do some sightseeing around Amman. Every Friday, a market, Souq Jara, is held in Jabal Amman, the area of Amman where our school is located. Heather and I ate breakfast and set out. We found the market after only a brief search and started browsing.

The first thing we noticed was that it had been a humongous mistake to eat breakfast. The market had all kinds of spectacular looking foods to try, such as a chili paste, crepes, pancakes, pizzas, cookies, ice cream, slushies, a partridge in a pear tree. AND they had tons of booths with all kinds of antiques, paintings, souvenirs, clothes, and lamps that looked straight out of Aladdin. I know where I'm going for Christmas presents this year!

After resisting all kinds of crepes, pancakes and pizzas, we broke down and bought some cookies with fig filling. Then we headed off to find the Citadel, supposedly the most exciting thing to see in Amman. Part of the Citadel are the ruins of a Hercules temple. And on the map, it was only a hop, skip and jump away from where we were!

The map did not, however, include the thousands of tiny, curved, wiggly streets that stood between us and the Citadel, conveniently located on the top of a mountain in the middle of Amman. We started walking. And walked some more. And just for fun, kept walking. We ended up in the middle of downtown. We asked some people how to get to the Hercules Temple. They told us we did not want to walk. We disagreed. We should have listened.

We followed the nice guys' advice and walked vaguely upward towards what we thought was the Hercules Temple. Sweaty and rather sore, we finally reached the top. And didn't see the Hercules Temple. After, you guessed it, walking some more, we finally decided to hail a taxi just to figure out where we were. We jumped in cab, asked for the Roman Ampitheatre, which was supposedly just past the Hercules Temple, drove about two blocks and got back out. Worth the 40 cents.

We wandered in, paid the one dinar charge and started climbing. We made it up the uneven steps to the top. What a view. We sat at the top and watched the crowd for a little bit. We saw a group of women in full hijab. It was hard enough for me to climb up those steps in jeans; I can't imagine doing it in a gown when I couldn't see my feet.

We stayed until closing time, then wandering with the other tourists out to the street. We decided to take a taxi back this time.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Day in the Life

Just to give you some idea of how I spent my days before shipping off every morning for training at the school, here's a short breakdown of an average day in the first week I was here (I've been here two weeks already; can you believe it?).

If Sine the kitten is staying with me, she abruptly wakes up from her 7 hour nap at about 7 a.m. and attempts to attack every inch of me she can reach. She spends the rest of the morning in the living room, and I, nursing my new scratches, go back to sleep.

A couple hours later, I am woken up by either the call to prayer, the gasoline truck, the fruits and vegetables truck, the cotton candy whistle or the various other weird noises in the city.

Descriptive passage: The call to prayer, which happens at pretty much every mosque as far as I know, sounds like a man chanting/singing very low. It lasts for about a minute, maybe two. The first time I heard the gasoline truck, I got very excited. Yes. Diesel really does it for me. No no. I got excited because it sounds just like it SHOULD be the Arab version of the ice cream truck theme song. Only it's not. Tragic. The fruits and vegetables truck has a similar ringtone but is not quite as ice creamy and therefore not quite as hope inspiring. The cotton candy whistle sounds exactly like one of those whistles you blow in, then push and pull out the slider. It sounds exactly like that because I'm fairly sure that's exactly what the cotton candy seller uses. Why there is a cotton candy seller wandering up my street at 8 a.m., I don't know. The various other weird noises in the city could be 1) our neighbors talking loudly in Arabic 2) our neighbors playing loud music in Arabic 3) our neighbors driving old, loud cars by our apartment 4) any number of weird big-city noises. I'm not sure how I'm going to sleep when I go back to the U.S. It will be way too quiet!

I ignore the noises and go back to sleep. I finally drag myself out of bed and flip the switch to turn on the hot water in the bathroom. An hour later I remember I turned the hot water on and finally decide to take a shower. Then I'm ready to start my day. Maybe. Depends. Maybe I'll just read for a while.

In the afternoon, I might decide I need some things from Carrefour, located in the City Mall. I walk down the street, turn right, walk down to the end of THAT street to a street with a line of shops. I eyeball the cars for a moment, then cross roughly six millimeters in front of two cars going opposite directions. I turn around and hail a taxi by pointing at the road. I tell the taxi in fairly bad Arabic where I want to go. He takes me, I go, I hail another taxi, I come back.

Or I could decide I just need little essential things from the string of shops near my apartment. We might be running low on water. In that case, I would get Heather, who speaks much better Arabic, to come with me to a shop where we order large water jugs delivered to our apartment. The man installs a pump, and we have fresh water for a couple of days. Until we need another one.

If I'm hungry and don't want to cook, I could also go get a shawarma. With Heather, because they don't speak English either. A shawarma is a flat, rolled-up sandwich filled with chicken or meat (contrary to popular belief, in Jordan, chicken is not meat) and vegetables. It is usually grilled.

If I need some pharmaceuticals, I head over to the pharmacy. Heather got a cold last week, so we are on a first name basis with the owners of the pharmacy. If you want to hear more about Heather's pharmacy fun, read her blog post called Haircuts and Vitamin B Shots.

We also have two or three different tiny convenience stores that conveniently offer fruit, veggies, many food options, and beauty and bath supplies, most of which for cheaper than at the Carrefour. We also have a Dinar Zone (dollar store) we are hoping will have kitten toy substitutes for our kitten instead of having her gnaw on my hands some more.

If we just need to get out of the house for a bit, or if the gasoline truck really got me thinking, we wander toward a little dessert shop and cafe, where we can enjoy fantastic ice cream and fairly yummy looking desserts.

But the best place we patronize (or maybe are patronized?) is the bakery. Every few days we get a half kilo of warm, soft pita bread. Melts in your mouth and makes a darn good breakfast. And lunch. And possibly dinner. Especially if you eat it with labneh (thick yogurt) and za'atar, a spice mix.

And I worried I wouldn't find any food I like here!

Tales from the Taxis

As Heather says in her post entitled Creeeepy Taxi Driver (which is a great look at another amusing anecdote about, you guessed it, a creepy taxi driver), a good 90% of the taxi drivers here are polite and helpful. Yesterday, however, I was batting a thousand.

Heather and I hail a taxi to take us to school at about 8:30 a.m. We need to be there at 9 a.m. We are about three blocks away when I realize I gave all the cash I had on me to a friend the night before. Heather checks her purse... Crap. We have no cash.

Heather asks the guy in Arabic to take us to a bank so we could pay him for his services. He proceeds to turn the car around and take us a dinar and a half in the wrong direction. As if this weren't bad enough, we then see an Arab bank, which we know takes American cards, ONE BLOCK away from our destination, which we reached at 9:30 a.m. Uncool, taxi driver. Uncool.

My second fabulous taxi experience occurred as I was trying to get home from school. Few taxis drive by the school, so I walked up the street a bit to a traffic circle. Apparently I have to be a lot more aggressive when it comes to taxis, because people kept grabbing every one I went for. After about twenty minutes of standing in the heat and having sketchy-looking non-taxi-driver guys ask me if I needed a ride, I finally got one. I told him, in Arabic, where I live. He refused to take me. I was not ABOUT to get out of that taxi after it took so long for me to get one. I told him again where I live, and this time he deigned to listen to what I had to say before refusing. I tried to explain in more detail where I wanted to go, and we set off.

When we got to the center I told him I lived close to, he didn't even bother asking for further directions to my apartment; he simply stopped and spun around in his seat expectantly. The cost was 1.80 dinars. I gave him a 5, and he gave me some dinars in change. I hiked the last ten minutes to my house, where upon Heather asked to borrow a dinar. I grabbed the dinars he gave me as change and noticed he had helped himself to a 1 dinar tip (you don't tip the drivers here). Very professional. Very.

I've been told since then that you can read the identification they supposedly post in their taxis (though thinking back I've never seen something like this), and you can call if you are mistreated by a taxi driver. We'll have to put that into effect if ever I run across this gem of a taxi driver again. Thank goodness we're taking the bus as soon as the girls start school.

On the other hand, today has been a much better taxi day. Our morning taxi driver was extremely jolly and smiled at us non-stop from the front seat. My taxi ride home didn't speak much English, but he chattered away at me in Arabic and laughed hysterically (in a good way) when I said yameen and ya3 tek el 3afyeh. The fare was about 2.18 dinars. I gave him 2.50 because I didn't have any other change, and he demanded I take the 30 cent change he offered. Nice guy. Maybe he could give my friend from the day before some advice on how to make friends, influence people and avoid making me mumble curse words under my breath for the rest of the evening.

Hello, may I speak to someone less desperate?

I've met some very nice guys here in Jordan. I've also met some creepy, overly attentive guys. This one was the latter.

Two nights ago, at about 11:30 p.m. I might add, I get a wrong number on my phone. I answer, say, "wrong number," hang up. No problem. The guy calls back. Ok. That's cool. Just checking to make sure you dialed correctly. I can see that. I say, "still a wrong number." I hang up. We're good.

Only then he texts me. His exact text: "Sorry about noise but when i was spoke to you i feel i know you." Needless to say, I don't respond. We've cleared up whose phone it is; I no longer have a role in this rather one-sided conversation. He waits about five minutes. Then he writes: "Ok the same question in another way are u related with someone if u dont plz let me hear ur voice again i am a good one belive me and just try (-;"

Horrendous grammar and spelling mistakes aside... ummmm... what? Really? Did the sound of me sliding over the syllables in "wrong number" really do it for you? Did my voice, so husky it could pull a sled as my Uncle Jim would say, really send you into spasms of ecstasy?

I turn the volume of my phone off and go to sleep. I tell my new friend Lena about this the morning after. She said the exact same thing happened to her a couple of nights ago. Oh. So maybe it wasn't my sleddog voice after all. Maybe it was my rather squeaky voice speaking... wait for it... ENGLISH. Maybe what he heard wasn't "wrong number;" it was "green card."

Monday, August 17, 2009

Would you like ceiling insulation with that?

So a couple of days ago, we had some workmen come to the apartment to fix the ceiling of the bathroom and the frame of the sofa in the living room.

In total, we had three men working in the bathroom, and then our landlord and her mother came by to assess the progress and make sure we weren’t left alone with strange guys in the apartment. The head man spoke a couple words of English, but for the most part, we were stuck miming things and looking confused. During the course of the repairs, the head man managed to ask me for… a bottle? A bucket? I have no idea what he’s saying... And finally I figured out that he wanted a plastic bag. Done. It’s yours.

But then about ten minutes later, he’s wandering around the apartment asking for newspaper. Heather and I both confessed later we were thinking, “Why didn’t you bring your own newspaper?” Well, we didn’t have any newspaper. Heather asked him what he needed the newspaper for so we could find a substitute. He launches into another Englabic explanation. We’re stumped.

He finally manages to mime a bow slash holy gesture in Heather’s direction. Oh! He wants to pray! So Heather grabs a blanket off of one of the couches.

Just imagine the scene now. There are two workmen in varying degrees of dustiness (from the bathroom ceiling) kneeling on our couch blanket in the middle of the dining room, facing our wall and mumbling Arabic chants in the direction of Mecca. The third workman is happily shredding ceiling insulation in the corner. Huh. Who knew I would ever use the words praying to Mecca and ceiling insulation in the same paragraph? Heather also wrote an entertaining account of this situation.

In addition to my first up close and personal look at the call to prayer in action, I also got a lesson in Arabic hospitality. I’m from the United States. When we have people over to fix things in our houses, we are normally polite to them, we help them out if they have questions, and then we stay the heck out of their way until they get the job done. I thought I played my part very well. I was super polite to the workmen, I got them a plastic bag when they needed it, then I curled up on the couch with my book, out of the way but still visible if they needed anything.

I look up from Harry Potter to find Heather scurrying around the house grabbing tea, drinks and cookies for the workmen. Huh. Well. Now I feel rude. And antisocial.

Apparently, it is not only polite to offer people fixing your bathroom ceiling drinks, but it’s EXPECTED. Also, tips and dinner would not go amiss either. Wow. I consider myself a pretty polite person, but Miss Manners, you definitely left out what do in cases involving prayer rugs and ceiling insulation.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Dear Diary

Dear Diary,

Today I was pompous and my sister was crazy. No. Sorry. Been watching too much Firefly lately.

Today I saw a little boy ride a horse down my block, then give the horse a scrub down with a hose in front of my apartment building. And a humongous herd of sheep was grazing right by the parking lot of the City Mall.

It was a good day.

Home Sweet Home

The front of our apartment complexHeather and I live in a furnished apartment near the University of Jordan in northwest Amman. The Ahliyyah School for Girls is located slightly southeast of central Amman, about a 1 and a half dinar cab ride. In fact… pretty much everything worth going to is located about 1 and a half dinar by cab away.

The neighborhood we live in is, according to Melissa, a little more conservative than some areas of Amman, but we haven’t had any trouble walking around. We are usually the only girls not decked out in headscarves in our area, but you learn to get used to that. We also have a row of shops, pretty much anything we need on a daily basis, within five minutes walking distance from the door of our apartment.

My bedroomNow. The apartment itself. My room is one of three bedrooms (there are three of us, so that works out nicely), which are all about the same size. My king-sized bed (sounds nice, doesn’t it?) is actually two twin-sized beds pushed together (ok, not so nice) with about a three-inch gap in between. I stuffed a blanket down in the gap, but needless to say, it’s still a bit lumpy. I usually sleep just to the right of the gap, which works fairly well. Maybe I’m just a hard sleeper. This leaves plenty of room for my computer, JaJa my stuffed monkey and a book to sleep on the other side of the bed. The rest of the room comes equip with two wardrobes, a nightstand and a dresser. Luxury!

The bathroom I share with Heather (we have two bathrooms, but Nadia gets her own in her room) is decently roomy but severely lacking in counter space. I keep the necessities in there and set up a “bathroom” shelf in my room with everything else that doesn’t need a sink. The water pressure also leaves something to be desired, but at least the water is hot. As long as I remember to turn on the hot water roughly 20 minutes before I want to take a shower that is. That will be fun in the wintertime!
A view of the dining room and living room. The balcony is to the right of the living room. The kitchen is through the doorway on the right.
We have a living room, complete with a television that sometimes works, a dining room, a kitchen and a balcony. We even have all the latest amenities such as a refrigerator, a stove and an oven! All gas lit, except for the refrigerator. That could be counterproductive. And if we want to use the microwave, we can wander into our next-door neighbors flat to use theirs. Not a bad gig, considering.

But the best part of our apartment is that it comes furnished with a kitten! Just what I wanted! Actually, no, our landlord didn’t supply us with a kitten. But our next-door neighbors have a new kitten, and they let us borrow her when we feel the urge to have our hands and forearms shredded. I’m mostly kidding. She does a bit of skin shredding, but she’s a cutie, and she takes the edge off me missing my two well-behaved children who are staying with their grandparents for the year back in Texas.

Our furnished kitten, SineA bed, a bathroom, a stove I’m learning to light without losing a finger… and a kitten. What more could I want?

What's in a Name?

I’ve always really liked my name. It’s pretty rare even in the U.S., and though most people know how to pronounce it, they sometimes haven’t heard it before. I’ve only ever met one other Gretchen. And I’ve never been called anything else, even a nickname, because I really dislike any nickname that goes with Gretchen (if I let you call me Gretch, I REALLY like you).

When I lived in France seven years ago, I toyed briefly with the idea of changing my name to Marie (my middle name) in order to make it easier on my teachers and fellow classmates. Not to worry. The only people who couldn’t get out some pleasing version of Gretchen were my math teacher, who usually called me, “Gre… Jret… Egh, Je n’arrive pas! Pressley!” And the other was the six-year-old son of some of our friends, who called me Grungen. I later made him try to say Gresha, which is slightly better than being called Grungy.

The point of these ramblings is that I came to Amman with no plans to change my name like I had thought about for France. But I’m finding out that Arabic-speaking people have WAY more trouble with Gretchen than the French did. Those who speak English pretty well through courses or study abroad can usually get it after a few false starts. However…

I have had some pretty humorous variations, the funniest of which have been Crotch and Glutton. Yep. Might switch to Marie for the duration. Tried that, they called me Mori, but it's still loads better than Crotch.

Go play in traffic - it's not just an expression!

I read in my spectacular Jordan Lonely Planet book shortly after arriving that crossing the street is likely to be the biggest challenge for the newcomer in Amman. Of course I didn't realize they were using the word "challenge" as the most enormous understatement of the year. Crossing the street here isn't a "challenge." It's at best an "adventure," at worst a "spontaneous suicide attempt."

It's not that the drivers here are bad. Actually, it takes an extremely adept driver to hit 100 miles an hour and still swerve neatly around a million other cars all doing 100 miles an hour while managing to avoid the hordes of pedestrians scurrying across the road.

So why not just use the crosswalks you say? HAHA! You are lucky to find a bit of driveway sticking out that you can call a sidewalk, much less a crosswalk. No, most walking takes place right next to the million cars going 100 miles an hour. And lanes seem to be optional at best.

Here's the way you cross the street. 1) You look to your left and wait until you see a break about a car's width between two cars. 2) Then you run like mad across that lane and 3) wait in the middle of the road with cars shooting by on either side of you, probably honking at you for being in the middle of the street. Then you look to the right and repeat step 2. If all else fails, stand really close to a local also attempting to cross the street and run when they run.

As dangerous as this sounds, the guidebook assured me that the drivers, though hitting the gas, honking the horn and sending dirty gestures our way from inside the cars, are not actually trying to hit us. In fact, my cousin Melissa, who's lived here for five years, says drivers can get into all kinds of trouble for hitting pedestrians. Apparently, passing a credit card's width from our abdomens is a perfectly legitimate way of negotiating the highway, though it doesn't do wonders for my blood pressure.

One time, Heather and I were trying to cross an exceptionally busy street. A security man who happened to be wandering by at the time noticed we were approaching the road with some trepidation, saw that we'd never had to dodge traffic before and graciously ran with us across the road to safety.

And I was worried about being yelled at for jaywalking.

Welcome to the world of Jordan. And to blogging.

Blogging. I've never really gotten into it. I've done it, of course, in several classes and as part of my job. But I've never really thought about it as a necessity for trips or to keep my friends and family updated.

Apparently I'm behind the times. As more and more people clamored for details about my seemingly mundane life, I thought, "why not." I'll get to design a cool title bar in Photoshop if nothing else. Plus, hey, maybe someone, somewhere will actually be entertained. Peachy.

So. Amman, Jordan. I will be living here for a year to teach English at the Ahliyyah School for Girls. I will be the support teacher for 5th grade. I've never taught English before besides occasionally correcting my friends' grammar. They LOVE that!

I was offered this position in kind of a roundabout way. My friend Heather (insert shameless promotion of her blog here) is interested in Arabic and Middle Eastern cultures. I told her I have a cousin living close to Amman and gave her Melissa (my cousin)'s email address. Before I knew it Melissa had gotten Heather an interview with the directors of the school. I got to thinking about it. Journalism jobs are pretty slim on the ground in the U.S. right now, so why not go abroad and see some more sights while I have the time? I, too, used my influential family connections to get an interview at the school as well.

Needless to say, Heather and I both passed our interviews with flying colors because, well, we speak English. Oh, yeah, and we both have bachelors degrees. And we're fabulous people. Heather found us a furnished apartment with a girl from Denmark named Nadia in the northwest part of Amman.

Now here I am, the girl who loves greenery and water, living for a year in the middle of the desert. Ah well. I AM from Texas. Feels kind of like home.