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.

**********
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 fran├žias.” 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.

**********

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.

Bombs and Bodies. Just another routine day at school

I have now survived one week and one day of classes at the Ahliyyah School for Girls. It’s been a lot of fun so far. My girls are mostly all very eager to learn and highly inquisitive. They have minor talking problems, as in they can’t shut up, but what fifth grade girl doesn’t? My main teacher, Leen, in addition to being a super awesome person is a fantastic instructor, and I am learning lots from her.

On the first day of class, I introduced myself, and we played some getting-to-know-you games, just like in the U.S. And as Americans, we usually like to start off the school year on a happy, fun-filled notes. I expected my first lesson in Jordan to be the same. That was before I saw the first lesson in the girls’ fiction books.

Nuclear Disaster! the title reads. The caption? “Ann Burden is sixteen. Following a nuclear explosion, she believes she is the last person alive on earth.” The story came equipped with a delightful picture of an explosion leveling a city. Cheery.

NOT ONLY did we read the excerpt from Ann’s fictional account on the first day of school (which included lines such as “Bodies. Just dead bodies,” “I went into a couple of houses, the Johnsons’, the Peters’ – they were all in there, all dead.”), but we also showed them pictures of an atomic bomb explosion and some dead bodies, which I thought was perhaps a little graphic for 10 year olds. They seemed to take it well.

Before discussing death and destruction on the first day of class, we also talked about nuclear weapons in terms of politics and power struggles. Huh. It turns out fifth graders in Jordan actually know something about current events AND politics, unlike many American college students I know.

Fortunately Unit 2 looks a little more cheerful. We get to read some Tolkien! Score. (P.S. They spelled Tolkien's name wrong in the textbook.) Of course it is the scene where the hobbits are lost and scared in the eerie forest...

Welcome back to school, kids!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

One Month Assessment and Observations

As I have now been in Jordan for exactly one month and two days, I think it's time to update people on the strange / different things I've noticed here in Jordan.

First of all, let's discuss clothing / appearances.

1) Obviously, as this is a Muslim country, women wear a lot of headscarves here. I would say, depending on what part of town you are in, that in the more conservative areas about 95 percent of the women wear the headscarves and in the less conservative areas about 50 percent of the women wear headscarves. This took a couple days to get used to, mostly because you have to get used to sometimes being the only woman in the vicinity NOT wearing a headscarf.

2) While walking around the city, it is not uncommon to see men dressed in the typical Saudi Arabian garb - a white robe-looking garment and a red and white checkered headscarf secured around their heads with a black band. I am seeing this less and less now that many people from the gulf have headed back home after their summer vacations, but as I said, it's still not uncommon.

3) Every once and a while, especially in conservative neighborhoods, you will see women dressed in the full burqa, which covers them from head to toe. Again, burqa sightings have decreased as visitors from the gulf have gone home, but you still see them fairly often.

4) Choice of dress here seems completely up to the wearer and/or the wearer's family. I've seen a girl in a halter top walking right next to a girl in a headscarf and long dress with long sleeves. As they say in Jordan, a'adi, it's normal!

Consumer complaints - stuff I can't find in Jordan

1) It is almost impossible to find a decent selection of hair products at the majority of the shops here in Jordan, though they do have a rather extensive display in Cosmo. You can get all the shampoo you want, but if you want a decently priced AND generous quantity of conditioner, you might want to switch countries. The same goes for hair spray and mousse.

2) Despite the fact that most women here wear make-up, headscarf or no, the make-up selection here is extremely limited as well. Supposedly one mall in the shopping district has an extensive collection of make-up, but I haven't made it out there to see yet.

3) While packing for my trip here, I was sure I could find some more conservative shirts, etc when I got here. And I have found several nice, long, non-revealing tops. However, the majority of the clothing at the shopping centers here is exactly what you would find in the U.S. Some of the dresses and halter tops I found displayed in the City Mall looked too scandalous for me to wear in the U.S. even. When I asked Melissa about this, she said that the girls here either layered these seductive seams over their long-sleeved shirts or they bought them to wear when they go abroad.

Other random things:

1) Children do not seem to have a bedtime here. We see them with their parents out at all hours of the night. When parents have an outing to go to at night, they do not put the kids to bed first, then go out. Nope, they just take the kids right along with them.

2) When riding in cars or in taxis, unless you know the person very well and you are just two or three people, women always ride in the backseat. Always. This involves, at least for me, some interesting leg positions, as people with long legs do not always fit comfortably behind someone whose seat is all the way back.

3) I've mentioned this before, but just about everyone smokes here. And they are allowed to smoke almost everywhere. No one thinks anything of this, nor is it common to ask permission before lighting up. I've been asked if I minded the smoke a total of once in the entire month I've been here. You get used to smelling like an ashtray.

4) The American movies they show on television here (by the way, satellite tv is free. Score.) are extremely strange. All of them have actors and actresses I know very well, but I have never heard of the majority of the actual films. Also, they all portray Americans doing very strange things. If these movies are the closest some Jordanians have ever gotten to Americans, no wonder they stare at us!

5) Our landlady travels with an entourage. I have never seen her without her mother, for one, and usually with three or four kids, too. They all come into our apartment together to talk to us and pretty much take over the dining room table. It's good to be loved!

In another month, I'll probably have a whole new list of strange and unusual sightings of cultural happenings here in Jordan. Can't wait for my two month anniversary!

Welcome to Jordan! How can I make your stay more complicated?

Last Sunday, I went to the maktab a'shurta, or police station (actually police office, but they got the idea) to get my visa renewed. With my usual impeccable timing, I arrived at 1:10 p.m., ten minutes after they closed for Ramadan. The harassed civilian I commandeered to help me talk to the unpleasant guard at the gate translated the guard's curt responses as "Welcome to Jordan. The station is open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday through Thursday. You are too late, you ignorant foreigner, you." Actually I made that last bit up.

Regardless, I was now faced with a problem. My visa was expiring on Friday. I was working from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. every day that week. So the soonest I could get back to the police station was today, a week later and three days past my expiration date. The harassed citizen told me it would be one dinar for every day I went over my visa. Three dinars. No big deal, right? HAHA!

This morning, I cheerfully rolled out of bed and was on the road toward the police station by 11 a.m. (well, 11:30 at the latest. Promise) I arrived, sweaty and exhausted after my hike uphill to the police station, held out my passport like a shield in front of me and was ushered by some stern-looking officers into a back room. I waved my passport at the official behind the desk and said "new visa." He waved me into a chair and took my passport. After looking at my visa for a minute, he said I had to go to an address he wrote on a piece of paper, then come back to the police station. "But what do I do at the address," I asked. He looked confused. He gestured to the women in the desk next to him to take me to another part of the building. "You are welcome in Jordan," he called as I left the room.

The woman took me into another official-looking office, where the officer there said I was over my expiration date and had therefore begun to rot. I needed to go to the Department of Something or Rather to pay my three dinars because the station could not possibly do it. Then I had to come back to the station to get my renewed visa. "We close at one," he reminded me with a smile. He had one of his guards take me down to get me a taxi. "Welcome to Jordan!" he said cheerfully as I exited his office trying to quell my urge to bean him and his officers with my purse for making me run around so much.

I got in my taxi and we drove to the Department of Whatever. It was now noon. I asked some more unpleasant guards where exactly the department was, and they pointed me to a building with roughly a million people standing around waiting. Joy. The guard stationed there reluctantly helped me find the correct form to fill out, then pointed me toward booth 2. "Welcome in Jordan," he mumbled grumpily. I stood in line at booth two, handed my paper to the attendant there, was discussed hurriedly behind the counter, then was pointed to the cashier's booth. I handed my paper to the women there and was asked to sit down. After a couple minutes, I heard her call, "American!" Although this isn't my usual name, I responded and paid my three dinars. "Welcome to Jordan," she said in lieu of a goodbye.

Rushing out of the building at about 12:30 p.m., I summoned the first taxi I saw and headed back to the original police station. I headed straight into the back room and got them to stamp my passport in no time. I walked out of the police station at ten minutes to one with my head held high.

“You are welcome in Jordan,” the guard called out as I wandered back by his kiosk.

Friday, September 4, 2009

One Month Anniversary

Today, September 4, marks the one month anniversary of the day I came to Jordan. How time flies!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

I'm sorry, I was looking for the staff meeting?

First of all, I would like to say that I love my school. The Ahliyyah School for Girls is a great place to work. The girls are fabulous and eager, and my fellow teachers are all supportive and cooperative.

That being said, the meetings we have are sometimes… not exactly what we Americans expect, to say the least.

A couple days before school started, we were all called over to the Bishop’s School, the boy’s school that partners us, for a meeting with the general director. The buses picked us up at 10 a.m. and carted us over.

I had been up for a while. I was tired. I was hungry. I was not in the mood for a staff meeting in Arabic hastily translated into English by the person next to me. So I was this side of cranky already.

The director started out in a typical meeting style – welcoming us, thanking people, introductions all around, extra. Then she powered up the Powerpoint, and we got to work. Note: I was only receiving about half of the information presented because of the translation, but she seemed to be talking about the usual teacher values, commitments and strategies. Then she started showing the movies.

We went through three or four 5-10 minute long movie clips that seemingly barely illustrated the point she was trying to make. At this point, I was ready to eat my own arm off. And we had gotten to 11 a.m.

We got through the movie clips and finished the talking portion of the meeting. Great! Time for lunch, right? Um, no. Thus began a forty-five minute long session of inspiring poetry readings in Arabic, songs in both Arabic and English and piano playing for our entertainment. And entertaining it would have been except for the fact that I was now chewing on a plastic bottle in hungry desperation and dreaming of bashing the piano with a baseball bat, then heading home to take a nap.

They even sang some Elvis. After this, American staff meetings are going to seem all kinds of tame.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Shameless Plug

Check out my roommate Nadia's blog post called Rice and Chicken. She relates a conversation she and I had about varieties of food within cultures. I guess it all depends on what your background is!

My First Iftar, With or Without the Macaroni

This past Sunday, Nadia, Heather and I hosted a traditional (well, sort of) iftar, or breaking of the Ramadan daily fast. Traditional foods for iftar are soups and sweet drinks, then dishes such as stuffed zucchinis, fatoosh (a salad with fried khutz [bread] on top), lots of rice, mensaf, and kafta, a meatloaf-like dish with Arabic spices and vegetables on top. Oh, and of course tons of Arabic sweets, including kunafa and baklava, for dessert.

Nadia made most of the dishes mentioned above. Heather and I took a more American route.

Heather decided to make Waldorf salad; only to add a little Middle Eastern flare, she put dates in it instead of raisins. I went as American as possible and decided to make macaroni and cheese.

That is, I decided to make my mom's ever-so-famous egg noodles and hot dogs macaroni. So on Saturday night, Nadia, Heather and I headed off to Carrefour for ingredients.

First of all, Carrefour did not carry egg noodles. I settled for jumbo elbow macaroni. Carrefour did not have ground yellow mustard. I settled for a milder variation of mustard powder. Carrefour did not have hot dogs. This one was tough. After combing the packaged meat area (NOT my favorite thing to do; ask anyone) for several minutes, I finally found something called Smoked Turkey Mortadella (plain). It looked a bit like an enormous hot dog, so I thought I would give it a try.

The next day: Heather and I decided to do a variation on the fasting because we wanted to get the real iftar experience. I woke up at about 10 a.m., drank a little water to take my medicine (which you are not supposed to take during Ramadan either, but I am NOT giving up my allergy pills.) and started my fast.

We broke down at about 2 p.m. We had just gotten back from walking around and buying more groceries outside, and we were deathly thirsty. Plus, my hands were beginning to shake. So we grabbed some quick khubz and lebnah and called it good.

We started cooking at about 5 p.m. Iftar began at about 7:10 p.m. Traditionally, you are also not supposed to taste the food while you are cooking it; that breaks the fast. Heather and I decided, in the interests of not embarrassing ourselves horribly, to taste our food BEFORE serving it to 20 guests.

So I wandered over (with two armfuls of ingredients) to the guys' flat at about 6 p.m. to begin my macaroni. Now, this sauce is notoriously tricky to make. It burns very easily and can refuse to thicken even on electric stoves. I was cleverly making this for the first time in Jordan, on a gas stove that only half works, using ingredients I've never used before and serving it to a houseful of people. Yes.

One of the guys had to light the stove for me, but then things went smoothly, even if I had to feverishly yell at the flames a bit for overexerting themselves. Made the sauces, yelled at the cheese to melt faster, then threw it all together in the pan. Then, throwing caution and my attempt at fasting to the winds, I tasted it.

Actually, it wasn't bad. The sauce was a little milder than normal, but I can live with that. The "hot dogs," however... Not such a great idea. They tasted like old bologna. But then again, as Heather said, no one else knew what it was really supposed to taste like. And as the pan was scrapped dry roughly 15 minutes after the start of iftar, I guess they found it edible. I didn't listen to a single complaint.

Hosted first successful iftar dinner? Check.

Out of those two? I choose...

On the way home from picking up my fabulously repaired purse, I found myself in a taxi with a chatty driver who knew a bit of English. Over the course of the conversation, after he asked if he could come back with me to America (I declined that tempting offer), he asked me if I had children.

"Nope, no children," I said.
"You marry?"
"Nope, not married."
"Oh, you gay?"

Wait, what? Did I understand this guy correctly?

"You gay? You like women?"

Really? Those are my only two choices? Married or gay? Can't a girl just be single in this country? On the other hand, maybe if the gentlemen here thought I liked women, I would get less attention.

Or maybe not.

Cheap, Fast Services Make Gretchen Happy

Just over a month ago, the zipper on my all-time favorite purse, which I bought just over a year ago in China, conveniently broke just as I was getting on the plane to Japan with no time to buy another one. I consequently bought the cheapest Japanese purse I could find that would hold my humongous camera. I kept my old purse with me, thinking I could maybe get the zipper repaired once I got to Jordan.

Turns out I can.

On Sunday, I wandered over to an alterations place on Garden Street, about a 30 minute walk from our flat. I walked in, asked if they spoke English ("Yes." What they meant, however, was "No." Fortunately after all my traveling, I am fluent in miming.)

I mimed the zipper breaking on my purse. They took the purse, gave me a slip of paper with a number on it and said come back tomorrow. One day? Score!

I didn't make it back until today. They handed me a fabulously fixed purse and gave me a price of 1 dinar for it. One dinar? Double score!

Who loves one dinar alterations? GRETCHEN loves one dinar alterations.