The Things I Feared

When we made the decision to move to Jordan, one of my first thoughts was, “What if they don’t have broccoli there?”

I actually worried about this.

Bret reminded me that if they didn’t have broccoli in Jordan, they would surely have something similar.

I was still worried. I know, that sounds stupid but see, broccoli has become a staple in Abby’s diet (about which I’m probably a little too proud) and I didn’t want her to forget all about broccoli and then decide when we’re back in the states that she hates it.

Plus, broccoli is one of the few green vegetables Bret actually eats and it’s ridiculously easy to cook. Its only drawback really is that it leaves the kitchen smelling like a fart factory.

Picture that for a second. A fart factory.

After about a week of worrying about broccoli, I realized what was really bothering me was my fear of being in a new and strange place filled with a host of unknowns. What if I was miserable? What if I hated everyone? What if everyone hated me? What if I had the wrong lunchbox?

While I was excited Bret had landed such a cool job, it also meant we’d be moving far far from home. I wouldn’t know the language, the local customs, or where to go for my yearly pap smear.

Do they even have gynecologists in Aqaba?

“Of course they do, babe,” Bret assured me, “They have vaginas there, so they must have vagina doctors.”

This from the man who, one week later, wondered if they had ice cream in Jordan. Ice cream, Bret? Jesus. Even tiny African villages with no running water have ice cream.

Nevertheless, I was worried about broccoli and my husband, about ice cream.

This brings me to the overall point:

To compare the things I was worried about before moving to Jordan with the things I’ve discovered since I’ve arrived.

1. Broccoli

They have it here. It’s not always available, either fresh or frozen, but they do have it. We have a giant bag of frozen broccoli in our freezer right now, in fact. And I feel much more secure. Abby even ate some steamed broccoli for lunch today. Our kitchen smells predictably farty.

They also have ice cream here, by the way. Lots of it. There’s a big ‘ole fancy Swiss hotel called the Moevenpick right next door to our gated community.

Moevenpick’s slogan is: “Passionately Swiss.” I’ve never thought of the Swiss as being a particularly passionate people. In fact, I think of them as being sort of indifferent. But I guess “Indifferently Swiss” is a pretty crappy slogan.

Anyway, Moevenpick also makes ice cream and it’s good. It’s no McConnell’s (best ice cream in the world!) but it satisfies.

Oh, and they have gynecologists here too. There’s one that even advertises his services on a huge sign on a medical building in town. I probably won’t go to him for a slew of reasons, but it’s nice to know he’s there.

2. Is It Safe?

This line was first made famous by Laurence Olivier in the film Marathon Man in which he played creepy Nazi dentist, Zell (inspired by Dr. Mangele). In the film, Zell would innocently ask his victims, “Is it safe?” and then proceed to rip out their teeth with a pair of pliers (no anesthetic, mind you).

If you have yet to see the movie, then shame on you.  Stop reading this post and go watch it. The rest of you, keep reading.

When anyone first learned of our plans to move to Jordan, they would invariably ask “Is it safe?” I could only answer, “I think so.” And now that we’ve moved here, my answer is…the same. I think so.

Is it safe? Well, yeah. We live in a gated resort community 8 miles from the city center. We’re surrounded by fancy buildings and swimming pools and people on vacation.

Aqaba is a town of 95,000. Crime of any kind is very rare here and while the drivers are batshit crazy, I don’t really get the sense that I’m unsafe.

We’re more likely to get hurt in a car accident or in our pool than we are in some sort of terrorist attack. Isn’t that what people mean when they ask if it’s safe?

This time last year, terrorists fired rockets at Eilat (the resort town in neighboring Israel, just across the water from us) and hit a part of downtown Aqaba. One person was killed and several people were injured. This freaked me out when I first heard about it.

But then, a crazy Christian extremist blew up a building and attacked a youth camp in Oslo, Norway just last month. And a friend of mine had his apartment in L.A. broken into twice in three months.

Even our own house in Pasadena was targeted by a burglar back in 2006. Luckily, our dogs chased him off and no one got hurt.

The point is, are we safe? Yes. We’re as safe as anyone else. We’re as safe as you.

Unless you’re in Darfur. Or Detroit. And then we’re probably safer.

3. The Chador

I knew from my internet research that I wouldn’t have to wear a headscarf in Jordan, but I wondered how many women actually would be wearing it? What about the full chador (black robe)?  Turns out, many of them wear the full chador, even though it’s 110 degrees outside.

Some even cover their entire faces with a thin gauzy layer of fabric over their eyes. Other women just wear a headscarf and modest clothes (a tunic top over jeans) and a few let their hair flow free.

The one thing they all have in common is beautifully groomed eyebrows.

The first encounter we had with the chador crowd was at JFK while we waited to board the flight to Amman. We were in the international terminal and we saw several women sporting the long, black robes and lots of dark eyeliner.

It tripped me out at first. In fact, I found it sort of creepy. It reminded me of the killer in the movie Scream or the priests at the Greek Orthodox church I went to occasionally as a child.

After the initial shock wore off,  I realized that I was creeped out because I wasn’t used to seeing people dressed this way. And the only people I had seen dressed this way were murderers (i.e. Scream) and old men who smelled like Frankincense. Naturally, with these kinds of associations, I wouldn’t automatically feel warm and fuzzy about the black robes.

But now that we’ve been here for a week, I’ve gotten used to them, more or less. At least they don’t give me the creeps anymore. In fact, I find them intersting.

I wonder how the covered women feel about the fact that they cover themselves. Do they dig it? Resent it? Feel naked without it?

As you can see, I have lots of questions. I’m working on it. I’ll get back to you.

4. Will I be miserable in Jordan?

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: “Wherever you go, there you are.” I was reasonably happy in Pasadena and I’m reasonably happy here.

I still fret about money and whether or not I’ll ever have toned arms. I still have bouts of health anxiety and I still apply Burt’s Bees lip balm eighteen hundred times a day.

In other words,  I’m adjusting to this place, but I’m still me.

I mean, I’m sure we can all agree that some places are indeed nicer than others. First class is a much swankier place than the coach cabin, for instance.

But if the guy sitting in seat 1A is a d-bag, he’ll be a d-bag whether he’s in first class or coach.

If he’s in first class on our flight from LAX to JFK though, he’ll be a d-bag who gets chocolate chip cookies baked fresh on the plane. The Muppets in coach (us) suffered through the torture of smelling those cookies as they baked but we didn’t get to enjoy eating them.

Fresh cookies are for first class passengers, not Muppets.

Sam the Eagle and I spent six dollars on a stale, packaged cookie made from sawdust and choco-wax nibs on that flight.  The goddam aroma of fresh cookies was too much for us to bear.

Unfortunately, that dusty, waxy “cookie” did nothing but leave us with cookie blue balls.

By the way, Bo Derek was on our flight from LAX to JFK. I actually had this thought when I noticed her: “Well, this plane is definitely NOT going to crash. Not if Bo Derek is here.” WTF?!

So, the point is, am I miserable here? Some days, yes and some days, no. Same as I was in Pasadena. The biggest difference is that here I don’t have physical proximity to my wonderful friends and family. And that’s a challenge, for sure.

Instead, I have to rely on a scattered expat community (whom I have yet to actually meet), the local folks, and my husband and daughter for support. When all else fails, there’s always Skype.

5. Secondhand Smoke

This one flatout sucks. I was worried about it being a problem and it is. I hate the smell of cigarette smoke (even when I was a smoker) and now that I have a baby, I get violent when anyone smokes near my child.

Unfortunately, even the babies in Jordan smoke.

People here light up in restaurants, cafes, while having a heart transplant. I wouldn’t be surprised if whichever gynecologist I do end up going to offers me a Pall Mall while she lubes the speculum.

I swear, it’s a national pastime here, smoking. Like baseball in the U.S. or cutting corners in China, smoking is the favored family activity in Jordan.

I’m struggling to accept it.

Bret and I have, for the most part, been able to shield Abby from the clouds of secondhand smoke that engulf this town on a daily basis. I frequent the cafe, Gloria Jean’s, in town because they make a great cappuccino. Unfortunately, the place smells like your uncle who smokes three packs before breakfast. I won’t even let Abby venture into the place. Bret waits with her in our air-conditioned car while I scurry in and try not to breathe too deeply as I smile and order my coffee.

We had dinner out at a restaurant the second night we were here. It’s a place called Ali Baba and they serve seafood and middle eastern fare (hummus and the like). The food was delicious, and aside from the flies that kept buzzing around us, it was a pleasant experience. Except for the smoking. The patrons all around us kept lighting cigarettes and I thought I was going to lose my shit.

I asked the maitre’d if they had a non-smoking section. He just looked at me apologetically and said “No.” I wrinkled my face at him, like Kermit the Frog, and hugged Abby to my chest. He bowed his head and walked away. I think he got the message.

In case he didn’t, and in case he’s reading this blog (you never know), this is the message: DON’T SMOKE AROUND CHILDREN, YOU JACKASSES!

Normally, I try to maintain cultural sensitivity, but in this case, it ain’t cultural. It’s downright stupid and rude. Don’t smoke around kids. Period.

Our current neighbors like to smoke on their back patio, which is a mere ten feet from our patio. I call them our current neighbors because these apartments are typically used as short-term vacation rentals, so these jokers likely won’t be here in a week or so.

I think they’re French. Whatever they are, they’re incredibly tan.

Nevertheless, I shoot them a powerful stink-eye every time they light up on the patio and I happen to be outside. I cough dramatically and wave my hand as though I’m trying to see through a thick cloud of toxic dust.

They just smile at me, oblivious, while their infant son rolls his own tobacco. You think I’m kidding.

It’s hard to change thousands of years of habits. We call them ritual or customs but really they’re just habits. Smoking happens to be a particularly nasty, and dangerous, one. I hope the people here start to see that soon and quit en masse. I have a dream.

So, there you have it. My fears. I think, for the most part, we’re doing pretty well here. People are people everywhere. Everyone just wants to wake up in the morning and have breakfast and go on with life. The folks in Jordan are no exception.

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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.