Strange and Wonderful Aqaba

It’s been over a month since I’ve posted anything and I apologize for my delinquency. I’ll try not to let that happen again.

We’ve been in Aqaba a little over two months now. Some days, it feels like we’ve been here forever. Other days, it’s as if no time has passed.

For the most part, we’ve settled into a nice routine. I’m even acclimating to the heat. Or, so I thought. Bret just informed me the weather has actually cooled down since we first arrived. For the record, “autumn” here in Aqaba means instead of 120 degrees F, it’s only 90. Whatever. At least I no longer feel like a strip of beef jerky every time I step outside. A few weeks ago, we had a few white clouds in the sky and you’d have thought they were made of gold the way everyone was oohing and ahhing at them.

I’ve made friends here too, both Jordanians and expats. Mostly other moms with young children. We have to stick together, we moms. You’ve seen us. We’re the ones with dark circles under our eyes and random stains on our clothes . We’re also the ones who desperately crave adult conversation and act a little feral when we suddenly find ourselves among other grown-ups. Moms are the same all over the world.

In other news, I got a job. I teach drama at the local International school. My students are 6th, 7th and 8th graders. It’s fun but some days the kids drive me nuts (to put it diplomatically). I have a much greater respect for my own middle school teachers from way back when. I went to public school in Oakland so you can imagine the hell we put those poor teachers through. Several of them actually had heart attacks and now I understand why. Kids are the same all over the world.

So, between my job, Bret’s job, Abby’s…well, just Abby, we’re a busy family. And it all feels very normal.

Bret works five days a week at RSICA and his hours vary, depending on the day; such is life for a college professor.  I work three mornings a week from 10:30 to 12:00 p.m. at the International school (part-time indeed).

But I do have a full time job, too. Her name is Abby.

Every morning, she wakes up around 6:00.  Thankfully, Bret gets up with her to change her diaper and feed her. At 6:00 a.m., I can barely open my eyes so I usually pull the blanket over my head and fall back to sleep. This is Bret’s gift to me each day. I get 30 minutes of “me” time in the morning while he takes care of the girl. I use this “me” time to sleep, so it always goes by in a flash. I’m in a blissful slumber and then suddenly, there she is. The bub. Hovering over me chanting, “Mama! Mama!” She’s usually still in her pajamas, a blob of banana stuck in her hair. I open one eye. “Good morning, Abby,” I croak.

At that point, Bret usually gets really dramatic, racing around, reminding me he has to get in the shower or he’s going to be late. I open my other eye and haul my tired bones out of bed, grumbling that he needs to relax. I’m up. He can get in the goddam shower.

At this point, Abby usually pulls my shirt down and latches onto a boob. I lay back down and we nurse. I close my eyes. Ah…more sleep. “Mama!” She’s up again. So much for that. She slides her little body off the bed and runs down the hall. I force myself upright and limp after her.

Is it just me, or do all moms feel like a giant lump of pain when they crawl out of bed in the morning? I look like Gollum when I first get up, my gnarled body hobbling around in tank top and boxers as I search for something to eat. And everything hurts! My knees, my neck, my back, even my elbows. What’s the deal? Am I still recovering from the train wreck that was childbirth? Am I just old? Is it because I lug around a 30 pound toddler all day? The answer is probably yes. To all of the above.

So, after Abby gets me out of bed, I brush my teeth and take a Synthroid pill. And then I have to wait for an hour before I can eat (the Synthroid needs time to work its magic). I’m usually pretty hungry when I first wake up, so that hour feels like an eternity.

While Bret showers, I bring in the laundry from the clothesline on our back porch. Nobody has a dryer here. We just hang our clothes outside and they’re dry in under an hour. Unfortunately, they’re also sort of crispy. For the first time in my life, I understand why fabric softener was invented.

After the Synthroid waiting period, I make coffee using my french press and scarf down a bowl of oatmeal with flax and butter. It tastes better than it sounds. I’m usually able to convince Abby to pause and eat a couple of bites of oatmeal too. Mornings are a busy time for her. She has to inventory her toys and push her potty chair around the living room. She has a life, okay?

It’s a pretty normal routine we have. I’m guessing most people, especially those with spouses and/or children, perform some variation of this routine every morning.

So, this got me thinking. Our life isn’t so different from what it was back in Pasadena. Some things are very different. The biggest one being that we live in Jordan, not the United States.

I realize I’m stating the obvious, but it’s actually quite significant. Even as foreigners, we’re subject to the laws here in Jordan. The personal freedoms we enjoyed in the States don’t necessarily apply to us here. It’s nothing to fret about, just something to be aware of.

Besides, any place you live is going to have its pros and cons. Even if you live in paradise, I bet you can find something to complain about. “These chocolates are too chocolatey. This massage is too awesome. Ugh! I am so sick of these amazing sunsets!” You get the picture.

That’s my amateur version of paradise, by the way. What is paradise, really? I  imagine a very zen-like spa in a lush jungle (but with no dangerous or poisonous animals, only nice monkeys). Also, I don’t actually walk in my paradise, rather I float. And I’m wearing a plush robe. Basically, my paradise looks like Burke Williams with howler monkeys.

Well, Aqaba isn’t exactly paradise. Or Burke Williams. But it’s home, for now. And like anywhere else, it’s a town that has some things I like, and some I don’t. It was the same in Pasadena. Plenty of things I loved and plenty of things I found annoying.

Since I’m in a positive sort of mood today, I’ve compiled a list for myself (and for you!) of some things about Aqaba that I find odd, funny, charming, beautiful.

For the record, these are only my opinions. The views expressed here do not represent those of…well, anyone other than me. If I had a studio backing me, or some sort of endorsement deal, not only would that be awesome, it would also be important that I give a disclaimer at the start of something like this. I thought I would practice, just in case an endorsement deal comes along.

1. Call to Prayer. This happens in town five times a day and it’s basically the Muslim equivalent of church bells. You’ve heard call to prayer, most likely in such films as Blackhawk Down and Hurt Locker. It’s some dude chanting in this eerie minor key, reminding everyone it’s time to face east and pray. Even though I’m not particularly religious, I think call to prayer is beautiful. It’s a haunting sound. We can’t really hear call to prayer out in Tala Bay so I only hear it when I’m in town. The only time call to prayer sounds creepy is when one of the speakers is on the fritz and the voice distorts. Then, it sounds like the lead singer of Pantera communing with satan.

2. The Camels. I love them. Such odd animals, aren’t they? Knobby knees, long, skinny necks, droopy eyes and lips. They hang out under the palm trees in this huge dirt lot in town. Occasionally, they go out for a stroll. Below is a picture Bret took while he waited to pick me up outside of the International school. Camels on walkabout.

3. German Kitchen Appliances. Say what you will about Germans, but they really understand efficiency. We have the most amazing oven. I never knew what an oven was capable of until I met our oven here. It comes with a thick manual explaining which setting is appropriate for any kind of baked good you can imagine. And our washing machine is badass –a little small, but badass. And we have a Braun hand mixer that just makes me giddy. I mix smoothies, milkshakes, soups, sauces, whipped cauliflower (sounds nasty, tastes awesome). Bret points out that it’s actually an “Immersion blender,” not a hand mixer. Whatever it is, it’s a thing of beauty. The day we brought it home I spent a few hours just immersion-blending various concoctions in the kitchen.

Our dishwasher is the only appliance I’m not crazy about. I’m glad we have a dishwasher, don’t get me wrong. Washing dishes by hand SUCKS, especially because I cook almost every meal. But our dishwasher has an especially sensitive flood sensor and it goes off sometimes in mid-cycle. It beeps and beeps and won’t shut up until one of us (usually Bret) gets up and manually turns it off. And then the whole cycle is ruined because when that sensor goes off, the dishwasher, in typical German fashion, is like, “Nien! Nacht! Nicht!” Something like that. Basically, it refuses to finish the cycle, or let us start a new one, until at least 45 minutes has passed. So we have to turn the machine off and let it take a nap or whatever the hell it does for 45 minutes and then try again. Two words: LITTLE NAZI.

4. Maktoob-Yahoo! The first time I logged onto Yahoo in Jordan, the homepage was in Arabic with pictures of celebrities I’d never heard of. In my jetlagged state, I kind of freaked out. But Bret fiddled with my computer and was able to switch it back to English. But he wasn’t able to switch it back to the United States version of Yahoo! Because of our IP address, we get the Middle Eastern version of Yahoo. It’s called Maktoob Yahoo. I don’t mind. In fact, I’ve grown quite fond of Maktoob. I’m now up-to-date on the weather in Amman, the daily prayer schedule, and the gossip in Bollywood.

5. Halal. This is an Arabic wording meaning, “permissible,” or “allowed.” It refers to food, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, etc. that are suitable for use/consumption by Muslims according to Islamic (or, Sharia) Law. Meat and poultry must be slaughtered by hand with a sharp knife for it to be halal. This is what comes printed on our packages of frozen chicken purchased at the local Safeway. You don’t often see this in the States.

6. Umm Abby. That’s my Arabic name (unofficially). It translates into Mom of Abby. Some people go by Umm “insert firstborn child’s name here” as their name. For the dads, it’s Abu. So, Bret is Abu Abby. The one part I don’t like about this cute naming custom is that the name defers to the firstborn child OR a son. So if Abby has a younger brother one day, and we named him Mahmoud (for example), then Bret and I would be known as Abu Mahmoud and Umm Mahmoud, even though Abby is our firstborn. But if our second child is a girl, then we would remain Abu Abby and Umm Abby because Abby would be our eldest and apparently her younger sister would be chopped liver. Sexist and lame. I’ll be Umm Abby forever no matter how many sons I have. By the way, Umm rhymes with “womb.”

7. The Red Sea. It’s gorgeous. It sparkles like diamonds. I’m not trying to be poetic. That’s exactly what it does. Sparkles like diamonds. It’s warm and clear and very salty (so you’re extremely buoyant when you swim in it). The Red Sea is truly a fantastic body of water. In LA, we lived close-ish to the beach. Not close enough though because we rarely went there. In Aqaba, I go to the beach almost every day. Abby and I sit in the sand and look at rocks and shells. Abby likes the rocks. She picks them up and carries them around as she toddles on the beach.

8. The Food. Labaneh, hummus, lentil soup, tabbouleh, falafel, fuul, shawerma, eggplant salad, lemon-mint drink. I love it all. It’s delicious and healthy and very fresh. Middle Eastern food is one of my favorite cuisines. It’s a good thing too because there’s plenty of it here.

9. Our Apartment. It’s bigger than our house back in Pasadena and has very high ceilings. We also have air-conditioning in every room, which is both lovely and necessary. The entire place has tile floors and we have two large bedrooms and two bathrooms. It’s also nice that nothing needs fixing. Back in Pasadena, Bret had a list of about 800 things around the house that needed some sort of repair. Here, not only is there nothing to fix, even if there were, it’s not our responsibility. We’re renters! There’s something delicious about renting. It’s liberating after five years of constant remodeling and repair efforts. I say this like I did any of the repairs myself. Bret did all of the actual work. But I don’t know how to do any of that manual labor stuff. I feel proud of myself when I change a lightbulb.

10. The People. For the most part, every person I’ve met and befriended here is lovely. Jordanians and the expats alike have been welcoming and kind. I’ve been invited into people’s homes for tea, coffee, breakfast, lunch. And the people who invited me were virtual strangers. They showed us true hospitality and I’m immensely grateful.

11. Everything is Smaller. In the U.S., things are so big. The cars, the people, the portions. In Jordan, everything is much smaller. Even the bugs. The flies are smaller, the cats are smaller, the people are smaller. The grocery stores are smaller and the grocery carts are about half the size of the carts in the United States. I guess in NY, things are a bit more compact but in California, everything is so vast, so spread out, so LARGE. Being here has been good for us as it’s inspired us to be more judicious with our space. When you don’t have a lot of something, it becomes more difficult to waste it. Not that we had a rolling estate in Pasadena, but we had two big cars, two big dogs, a big garage, wide freeways, big grocery stores, big malls, Big Gulps, the list goes on. Here, we have no garage and one small rental car (a Peugot!) that we share with one other professor at RSICA. We have no animals to look after here, just one small child; although, we do like to give her a wide berth. And in terms of physical possessions, we’re living on a pretty bare-bones household here. And yet, we have plenty. More than enough. I’m telling you, if you got rid of half your stuff, you’d still have a lot and you’d probably feel much lighter.

12. Affection Between Men. It’s a tender thing to see two grown men hugging and pecking on the cheeks. In the States, one might wonder if perhaps the men were lovers. But in Jordan, the hetero men are very affectionate with each other and it’s just part of guys being guys. It’s not widely acceptable to be gay here unfortunately, but it’s totally fine (and even expected) for two manly men to link arms and go for a moonlit stroll on the beach. I wish there was more tolerance for gay people here, but at least men can cuddle with one another without shame.

13. I Can See Africa From my House. This is true. Not only can I see Israel (the lights of Eilat shine brightly), I can also see Egypt. And Egypt is in Africa, for all of you who are geographically challenged. It’s an amazing thing to see another continent from your backyard. Eat that, Sarah Palin!

14. Men Like Kids. In Jordanian culture, children and family are the center of life. People work and have hobbies, but family is the most important thing for most Jordians. And what I find especially interesting is that the men are just as sweet to Abby as the women. Grown men come up to Abby and play with her or give her toys and candy. Many ask if they can hold her or kiss her cheek. Abby isn’t used to so much physical interaction with men (aside from Bret), so she usually rejects it, clinging tightly to me and occasionally bursting into tears. When she cries, the men apologize profusely and back away politely. I assure them it’s okay. She’s just uncomfortable with strangers sometimes. Personally, I think it’s a healthy fear. After a few minutes, Abby usually relaxes and starts to warm up to them. She might even offer a smile or blow them a kiss. And when she does, the men just melt. People really do like children here. In the States, women would often approach Abby or smile at her, but the men usually stayed away. I’m not referring to our friends or family, mind you. Just strangers. Jordanians have a true soft spot for the kids and, as a mom, I greatly appreciate it. I just wish they would stop smoking around children and started using child car seats. I often see kids riding on the laps of their parents in the front seat — no seat belt, no car seat. Some people think this is no big deal. I disagree.

So, that’s my list, thus far. I’ll keep updating it as time goes on. I’m sure I will discover many more wacky, cool, wonderful things about this place. One of these days, I’ll probably make a list of all the things I don’t like, too. I can already think of a few things, but I’ll save them for another day.

In the meantime, this is Umm Abby, signing off.

Welcome to Jordan!

So here we are in Aqaba. We arrived about a week ago; Bret, Abby, and me. Our little family. We’re holding up okay, considering what a HUGE transition this has been. If you’re like, “What do you mean by huge transition, Marj? What’s so huge about it?” Well, for starters, Aqaba’s in Jordan. And Jordan is in the middle east. The middle east. You know, that strange, warring place you hear about on the nightly news. The place for which every rapper used to wish peace back in the 90’s.

Luckily for us, Aqaba (and Jordan) is pretty peaceful. But there’s a 10-hour time difference between Aqaba and L.A. so jetlag was inevitable. We’re only just now getting on a relatively normal sleep schedule.

It’s been a tough week for Bret and me–lots of testy exchanges and general disorientation.  For the first few days, we were going to bed (or more accurately, face-planting) at 4 in the afternoon and awakening at 2 in the morning, ready to start the day. It was a bummer for those first few days, especially since Aqaba doesn’t really get going until 10 am, which makes finding an early bird breakfast damn near impossible. Even finding a cup of coffee before 9 am is tricky. Adding to the weirdness is the fact that it’s Ramadan this month, which means that everyone is fasting (no food or drink) from sun-up until sundown for an entire month. Plus, it’s illegal (ILLEGAL, I say!) to eat or drink anything on a public street until after sundown.

For the record, I’m not fasting and neither is Bret.

Luckily, we also live in a gated community called Tala Bay (8 miles from the town center) filled with German tourists where the same Islamic rules don’t apply.  But to that end, a whole other level of weirdness DOES apply. For example, Bret could rollerskate through the streets of Tala Bay wearing nothing but a purple Speedo and munching on a stollen and no one would look twice. More on that later.

A little perspective: For the past five years, we’ve been living a pretty uneventful life in sleepy Pasadena (California, not Texas). Sure, our little house was sort of falling apart and we constantly stressed over finances but it was an easy life. It was familiar. I knew where the grocery store was, I had a favorite Chevron and we had our daily routines down pat. It was home. Now, we’re seven thousand miles away in a resort town in a developing nation. It’s different.

A few months ago, Bret interviewed for a job as a professor at the only film school in Jordan: the Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts (or, RSICA). It’s an MFA program not unlike the production program at USC in Los Angeles. The program here in Aqaba is actually modeled after the USC program but the student body is made up entirely of young adults from the MENA (Middle East North African) region instead of kids from the Mid-west (Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio).

When Bret first mentioned the gig to me, we were in the middle of the worst period of financial hardship we’d experienced since undergrad and I didn’t care if he got a job on Mars, as long as it PAID. And didn’t land him in prison. I wouldn’t want him becoming a pot farmer, for example. I have scruples. Besides, we have a baby now. But things were getting desperate, so if he were offered a job as a mule, I may not have objected.

So, when he got hired at RSICA, it sounded like a dream. The school offered a decent salary and benefits package and the best part (or at least a huge bonus) is that Bret would likely ENJOY the work. It’s easy to lose sight of personal fulfillment when mortgage and gas bills keep knocking you down like little monthly tsunamis. Bret spent three years at USC earning his Master’s in film directing and now he would get the opportunity to teach directing and maybe even have time to direct some of his own projects. After spending the last few years doing editing gigs for mediocre television and internet shows, he would finally get to exercise his intellect, creativity AND Arabic language skills all at once.

After a brief discussion that consisted of: Bret: “So what do you think?” Me: “I think you should take it.” Bret: “Okay,” we decided to pack up our little family, rent out our crumbling house and move to Jordan. Our families and friends were thrilled for us albeit sad to see us moving so far away. We were sad too. Or at least, I was. We reminded ourselves and our friends/fam: it’s only for a year. It’s like going abroad in college. Everyone did that, right?

The most provocative question I got was: “Is it safe?” At first, I had the same question. Would I have to wear a head scarf? Or worse, a full chador? Would I be allowed to drive? Would I be treated like a second-class citizen? Would I get groped by Arabic men on a regular basis? Important questions.

So naturally, I consulted the internet.What I discovered is that Jordan is a pretty relaxed country as far as the middle east goes. Women are not required to cover their hair and they’re allowed to drive. I don’t get groped but I do get stared at a lot. I think that’s just because I’m an obvious tourist.

Also, I’m traveling with an insanely cute baby who says “Hiya!” and waves at everyone. For those of you who’ve met Abby know what I’m talking about. She’s a little cherub with the charisma of Johnny Carson. People naturally gravitate toward her.

After touching down in Aqaba at around 9 p.m. August 4th, one of Bret’s collegues, a lovely Jordanian man, picked us up at the tiny airport. He immediately made us feel welcome and assured us that the two bags the airline had “misplaced” would turn up the following day. I had my doubts as I imagined all of the new clothes I had recently bought from Anthropolgie and Nordstrom and how I would never be able to find suitable replacements in a town where the women wear black robes and rubber sandals.

I felt a rising panic in my chest but decided to trust Bret’s colleague. If you’re wondering why I’m not telling you this colleague’s name, it’s because Bret asked me not to. So, in the interest of convenience and protecting said colleague’s privacy, said colleague will henceforth be referred to as “Marty” (not his real name. Not even close).  So, Marty told me our bags were likely still in Amman and just missed the connecting flight to Aqaba and we’d surely get them in the morning. All we had to do was fill out a claim form and the airline would contact us when the bags arrived. Like I said, I decided to trust Marty. He seemed like he was telling the truth. Besides, Bret assured me over and over that airlines don’t like losing people’s luggage and that we would definitely get our bags within a few days. I couldn’t help but wonder if “a few days” in Jordan was the equivalent of six weeks in America. I took several slow deep breaths.

Thankfully, I had packed a smaller, carry-on suitcase with a few outfits for me and some for Abby. Her giant suitcase was the other one that had gone missing. It was filled with her Funzi Bunz cloth diapers and adorable little dresses from Tea Collection and Baby Gap. I imagined some greasy man with bad teeth peddling our expensive American clothes on the street somewhere in dowtown Amman and I immediately felt like an asshole.

I decided not to worry about our bags and instead focused on the incredibly hot desert air that was choking the breath right out of me. I thought of Brooke Shields in the movie “Sahara.” She wore that awesome khaki jumpsuit and her hair was feathered to perfection. I was wearing black jeans stained with cream cheese and a sweater that smelled like b.o. and secondhand smoke (welcome to Jordan!) and my hair was in a greasy ponytail. Brooke Shields I was not.

After filling out claim forms for our “lost” luggage, Marty took us to our new apartment by way of a small grocery store in town called Mohannad (not be confused with the ever-popular Mohammad). Mohannad was awesome! We picked up some Quaker oatmeal, a block of feta cheese, some chocolate ice cream, apples, bananas and I grabbed a can of kidney beans for some reason. Marty had stocked our apartment’s fridge and cupboards before we arrived, which was incrediby sweet. He got us 3 cartons of milk, orange juice, apricot nectar, plain yogurt, labaneh cheese (a cross between sour cream and Greek-style yogurt), cream cheese, tea, coffee, sugar, toilet paper, garbage bags and a giant box of these cookies called Snack Maamoul. They’re basically the middle eastern version of fig newtons, only they’re filled with dates instead of figs. And they’re totally rad.

After Marty dropped us off at our apartment and we hauled in all of our bags (minus the two most important ones), Bret and I stood in the middle of the living room and stared at each other with bloodshot eyes. Then we polished off about sixteen Snack Maamoul cookies apiece. Exhausted and bloated, we flopped onto our new (king size) bed and fell asleep…for about 5 hours.

Then we sat bolt upright.

It was still very dark outside but our bodies were like, “C’mon kiddos! Up and at ’em!” By the way, our daughter, Abby, was an amazing sport about all of this. She slept for 9 hours of the 11 hour flight from NY to Amman and she was pleasant and happy for almost the entire journey. She’s a far better traveler than either Bret or I.  She turned 14 months on August 9th. I wonder if we’ll get hit with the dreaded “Terrible Twos” next June when her birthday rolls around. I wonder if the so-called Terrible Twos isn’t a myth. If any of you reading this are parents who either have a two-year old or lived through a two-year old, thank you for taking the time to read my blog. And you’re also probably grumbling and laughing at me right now, “Bitch doesn’t know what she’s in for.” Maybe I don’t.

But maybe my girl will skate through the Terrible Twos like she always seems to skate through everything else: smiling, laughing, curious and sweet.

Or maybe she’ll turn into a screaming, demanding little lunatic and it’ll be pure hell for her father and me.

Either way, we’ll get through it. Just like we’re getting through the adventure of moving to Jordan. We’ll get really cranky, apologize and then stuff ourselves with Snack Maamoul.