NO PLACE LIKE HOME

We’ve been living in Aqaba now for 8 months (minus the month we were in the States for winter break). And you know what? Aqaba feels like home.

Sort of.

I know I said in my last post that it was nice to be home in the States in December. But it’s funny. When we were in Pasadena, it felt like a familiar place but not necessarily like home. Maybe it’s because we have a renter in our house and we didn’t actually go “home.” Instead, we crashed on the couches of family and friends. While I’m still so grateful for the generosity of said family and friends, it was nice to finally get back home. To Aqaba.

The thing about expat life is that the concept of home becomes more abstract. It’s not just a particular house or city. It’s…many things. Pasadena is where our house is. The U.S. is our country of origin. But where is home? Where can we walk around naked? Where is the coziest bed? Where do we feel totally comfortable to be exactly who we are, warts and all? Right now, the answer is Aqaba. In our little pre-furnished apartment in Tala Bay.

There are still many things about this place that feel completely foreign. When I drive around, I often think to myself, “How the f*ck did I wind up here?” It’s not that I don’t like it, it’s just that it’s so….different. So unexpected. In other words, the novelty has yet to entirely wear off. I don’t know if it ever will.

I do know that my daughter has developed a taste for labaneh sandwiches (labaneh on pita sprinkled with za’atar) and she can count to ten in Arabic. She says the word “finished” when she’s eaten enough of a meal, but she also says (and understands) the word “halas” (which means “enough” in Arabic). She knows the story of Ali Baba as well as Goodnight Moon. And the red and white checked headscarves are not foreign to her. They probably never will be.

This isn’t to say I love everything about this place. I don’t. There are some ways women are treated that I don’t especially like. Cab drivers won’t allow us to sit in the front of the cab and if they do allow it, it’s usually because they want to hit on you. Some of the men here assume because I’m not covered I must be “easy” or quite possibly a hooker. Nevermind the wedding ring on my finger, or the husband sitting next to me, or the baby on my hip.

There’s this one guy at our vegetable market, for example, who always asks me where my husband is and tries to caress my hand when I hand him the cabbages I want bagged (the cabbage, not me). I always tell him in a firm tone that my husband is at work and then I turn to Abby and engage her in conversation. It’s all very routine but I wish he would just knock it off. Even if I were single and looking to score, he stands ZERO chance. I mean zero. I’d rather make it with a cabbage.

The other thing I dislike is the general lack of responsibility. In the US, every child grows up with the idea that he or she could one day become president. This isn’t to say that every child aspires to be the leader of the free world (or should aspire to for that matter), but any person born on American soil (this includes Obama, for all of you birther wackos reading my blog) has the legal right to be president. I believe that does something to a person. It makes one believe anything is possible. As Americans, we are responsible for ourselves, our society, our government because we create it rather than it being created for us. It isn’t always perfect. In fact, our society is rather flawed. But the system itself allows us to create our destiny, to take responsibility, to take action. Theoretically.

In this region, there are kingdoms. Kings are born into their roles. They’re not voted in by the majority. They’re born and presto! They’re kings. It’s actually a little more complicated than that. It actually involves family and royal courts and behind-the-scenes manipulation. My point is that in a kingdom, different rules apply. And I wonder what that does to a person. How does that change a person’s feeling of responsibility to contribute? I don’t know because I grew up in a democracy.

Americans are descended from a long line of pioneers willing to suffer for a better life. Generally speaking, we’re a country of innovative, inspired, and enterprising people. There are plenty of good-for-nothing a-holes lazing about all over the US of course, but there’s a can-do spirit that’s an inherent part of American culture. And it’s specifically American. I don’t often see it here in Jordan. The people here are very kind but I don’t always see the same work ethic that I see in the US. That’s not to say Jordanian people don’t work hard; some work themselves to the bone. But there seems to be a much more laid-back attitude here because family is the priority for most people, rather than work. In the States, people have a tendency to live for their jobs. It’s important to strike a good balance, I think. Maybe the US and Jordan could learn from each other.

And then of course there’s the whole smoking thing that I’ve mentioned before. Not crazy about that. And also the batshit drivers. As my friend, KW says, “There are no rules in the desert.” This could not be a more apt phrase when describing the way Jordanians drive. No. Rules. At. All.

But I wonder, when we finally do move back to the US and this place is no longer “home”, will I miss it? Will I miss the desert air or the daily camel sightings? What about the smell of shawerma wafting out of the sandwich stalls or the strange little nut shops or the odd assortment of goods we find in the local Safeway? Will I miss seeing Israel and Egypt from my backyard? Will I miss hearing call to prayer, or seeing women wearing hijab? I wonder if a part of me will always long for Aqaba.

I do know this. Living here has changed my worldview. When we were in the States over winter break, we stopped by an outlet mall outside Tucson and we saw a muslim family kneeling in prayer in the mall parking lot. I found it to be a comforting sight. Before moving to Jordan, I either would have been a little intimidated by seeing something like that or I would have ignored it. But after living in Jordan, I was able to view muslims kneeling in prayer with compassion. In fact, it reminded of “home.”

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.